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Cyrus Panjvani is Associate Professor of Philosophy at MacEwan University.

A Philosophical Approach

This book philosophically introduces the basic truths, doctrines, and


principles of Buddhism. Its goal is to explain the teachings of the Buddha
and of Buddhism clearly and consistently. Though the book treads beyond
the Buddhas life, including into the Abhidharma and Mahayana traditions,
it remains throughout a philosophical discussion and elaboration of the
Buddhas thought. It is meant to be an accessible guide for those who have
no background in Buddhism, and to be beneficial to the philosophical
understanding of those who do.

Buddhism

Readers looking for a clear, concise, and accessible introduction to the


basic tenets of Buddhism will find Panjvanis book ideally suited to their
needs. The book covers such quintessentially Buddhist notions as the
Four Noble Truths, the No Self view of personal identity, and the causal
principle of Dependent Arising. One of the books main strengths is its
systematic and meticulous use of examples drawn from both canonical
and contemporary sources to illustrate the pragmatic aspects of
Buddhist teachings. With just the right blend of doctrinal exposition and
philosophical analysis, Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach offers general
audiences a useful resource for engaging Buddhist ideas in a critical and
effective way.
Christian Coseru, College of Charleston

Cyrus Panjvani

Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach is an excellent introduction to


Buddhist philosophy. It includes a very lucid presentation not only of basic
Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold
Path, but also of such challenging concepts as emptiness and dependent
origination. The work focuses on a general overview of fundamental
issues, but also explores in some depth the complexities involved in crucial
questions such as the nature of desire and the critique of self-identity. I
highly recommend this work for introductory courses in Buddhist and
Asian philosophy.
John P. Clark, Loyola University New Orleans

Buddhism
a philosophical approach

ISBN 978-1-55111-853-6

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Cyrus Panjvani
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Buddhism

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Buddhism

A Philosophical Approach

Cyrus Panjvani

broadview press

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2014 Cyrus Panjvani.


All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by
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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Panjvani, Cyrus, author
Buddhism : a philosophical approach / Cyrus Panjvani.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-55111-853-6 (pbk.)
1. Buddhist philosophy. I. Title.
b162.p35 2013181'.043C2013-907132-6

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For Lindsey and Lily, my bright lights

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Contents
Prefacexi
I



Indian Contexts1
General Themes of the Indian Philosophical Tradition 1
A Short Account of the Vedas and Upanishads 6
The Philosophy of the Upanishads 9
The Identity of Brahman and Atman 11

II The Legend and Life of the Buddha15


Introduction
15
The Early Life 16
The Four Signs 19
Renunciation
25
III Reading the Middle Way29
Steering the Middle Course 29
A Symbolic Reading 33
Concluding Remarks
37
IV

The First Noble Truth: Three Understandings of


Suffering39
Introduction39

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Pervasiveness and Eliminability 40


The First Understanding 43
The Second Understanding 45
The Third Understanding 48
The Five Aggregates 50
The Buddha and David Hume 57
Concluding Remarks
60
V The Second Noble Truth: An Analysis of Craving63
Introduction63
Craving and Permanence 65
Craving and Wanting A Difference in Kind 67
The Character of Craving Qualitative Observations 70
The Character of Craving Formal Observations 73
Criticism of Bahm 77
Self and Suffering 81
VI

The Third Noble Truth: Nirvana, the Cessation of


Suffering84
Introduction
84
Samsara
86
Understanding and Describing Nirvana 89
VII

The Fourth Noble Truth: Walking the Noble Eightfold


Path97
Introduction
97
The Noble Eightfold Path 99
More on Mindfulness 106
III The Doctrine of No Self109
V
Introduction109
The Argument from the Aggregates 110
A Lute, a Chariot and the Composite Self 116
The Argument from Lack of Control 123

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Contents

ix

IX The Doctrine of Impermanence130


Introduction130
Arising and Passing 131
Other Views of Change 137
Numerical Identity and Qualitative Identity 140
Annihilationism and Eternalism 143
Concluding Remarks
145
X The Doctrine of Dependent Origination147
Introduction147
The First Model: Physical Causation 151
The Second Model: Mental Causation without Universal
Causation156
The Third Model: Mental Causation with Universal
Causation161
The Importance of Universal Causation 164
Dependent Origination and Causal Continuity 168
XI Karma and Rebirth: Continuity, Not Identity171
Introduction171
Karma and Morality 173
Karma and Rebirth 176
Continuity of Self over Time, Not Identity 181
XII The Concept of Dharmas in the Abhidharma195
The Abhidharma, the Dharma, and Dharmas 195
Dharmas and Atoms 198
Dharmas as Ultimate Reality 203
Dharmas and Mindfulness 209
What Is the Duration of a Dharma? 211
III
X


The Concept of Emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism219


Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism 219
The Perfection of Wisdom and Emptiness 223
Emptiness and Dependent Origination 232

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Emptiness and Non-Duality 235


Emptiness and Enlightenment 240

IV Compassion and Skillfulness in Mahayana Buddhism245


X
Introduction245
The Bodhisattva
246
The Bodhisattva Renounces 253
Compassion and Suffering 258
Genuine Compassion
259
Skillful Means, the Arhat and the Bodhisattva 262
An Emphasis on Practice over Belief 267
XV

The Parable of the Burning House A Closing


Discussion269

Glossary of Select Sanskrit, Pali and Philosophical


Terms283
Bibliography287
Index291

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Preface

Th is book ph i losoph ica lly i n troduces basic truths, doctrines, and principles of Buddhism. It presents reasoning, provides
arguments, raises critical considerations, and considers responses. Its goal
is to explain the teachings of the Buddha and the concepts and doctrines
of Buddhism clearly and consistently. It is meant to be an accessible guide
for those who have no background in Buddhism, and to be beneficial to
the understanding of those who do.
The explanations in this book aim to be clear and true, and it is worth
giving some thought upfront to these objectives. Providing clarity is
like casting light. Clarity allows us to see better and eases the path to
understanding. And just as one light source need not deny the illumination of another but can add to it, the understanding gained through one
explanation can stand to gain from another even if they are different in
approach. Truth is more exclusive: if an explanation is accurate or true,
then a differing one is liable to not be. But while the explanations provided in this book strive for truth, they do not presume to possess truth.
This is not simply about modesty, and nor is it hesitancy. It is about
what is important for gaining clarity and furthering understanding: an
xi

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openness of mind and a non-attachment to views. An attitude of possession towards truth is not helpful for gaining philosophical understanding,
and particularly so concerning Buddhism.
Ashoka was a renowned Indian warrior king of the Maurya dynasty
from the third century BCE who later gave up his conquering ways to
devote himself fully to Buddhism. He is reputed to have cut the following message into a rock: Do not quarrel about religions, concord is
meritorious. Do not imagine that you have complete hold on Truth. You
may not have it; no religion has a monopoly of Truth.1 This is quite
a message to write with the point of a sword, and especially from one
committing wholeheartedly to a religion as Ashoka is said to have done.
But it is an attitude appropriate to the Indian philosophical religious
milieu, including Buddhism, as we will come to see. It is also an attitude
appropriate to philosophical writing: while it aims for truth, it does not
benefit from an attitude of possession of truth and in fact suffers for it.
Whether Ashoka intends so or not, he describes not only an approach
towards religion but a good approach towards explanations of religion.
This same attitude of non-possession of truth is evident in a famous
Buddhist simile. The Buddha, in the Alagaddupama sutra, describes a
man who comes to an expanse of water with no way to cross. He builds
a raft and then asks himself, after he has crossed, whether he should
carry the raft which he has just built along with him on his journey.
The Buddha describes this to be an encumbrance and not useful. He
states, This raft has been very helpful to me, since supported by it and
making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far
shore. Suppose I were to haul it onto the dry land or set it adrift in the
water, and then go wherever I want. Now, bhikkhus [monks], it is by so
doing that that man would be doing what should be done with that raft.
So I have shown you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the
purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.2 The Buddha
1 As quoted in Radhakrishnan (1984), p. 10.
2
Alagaddupama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya I 22, p. 229.

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xiii

likens his teachingsthe Dhamma in Pali, or Dharma in Sanskritto


rafts. Teachings, as with rafts, are to be used and then put aside when
no longer of use. They are not to be objects of attachment and possession; they are not to be carried around as rafts on ones back when it is
not beneficial to do so. This attitude of non-attachment to teachings is
part of a wider attitude of non-attachment. Attachment to self, it will
be discussed, is the key source of suffering in the Buddhist sense and
overcoming this is the focus of Buddhist practice and discipline. A book
about Buddhisms teachings such as this can be described as a teaching itself, and in this respect, a kind of raft. A raft for accessing other
rafts, perhaps. Its value lies in the clarity of understanding it helps deliver
about Buddhist teachings. It does not befit the writing of such a book to
presume possession of truth, or present an attitude of attachment to its
views. This would not communicate well the manner in which Buddhist
teachings and doctrines are supposed to be appreciated.
Chapter One presents the Indian philosophical tradition within
which Buddhism arose and some general themes of this tradition.
The legend and life story of the Buddha are meant to impart important lessons about Buddhism, and these are discussed in Chapters Two
and Three. Chapters Four through Seven successively discuss each of
the Four Noble Truths concerning the nature of suffering; its cause in
cravings; the release from suffering that is Nirvana or Enlightenment;
and the means to its realization through the Noble Eightfold Path. And
Chapters Eight, Nine and Ten respectively discuss the doctrines of No
Self, Impermanence, and Dependent Origination. These truths and doctrines, and the connections between them and the concepts they raise,
are critically important for philosophically appreciating Buddhism, and
accordingly they are closely attended and analysed over seven successive
chapters. Collectively this discussion is the greater part of this book.
The notions of karma and rebirth raise important questions about the
continuity of self over time and these are assessed in Chapter Eleven.
Chapter Twelve addresses the concept of dharmas in the Abhidharma
tradition and Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen address key concepts
of Mahayana Buddhism. These three chapters focus on discussing and

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assessing central concepts and aspects, and therewith provide thematic


presentations rather than broad overviews of these traditions and their
several schools. The former chapter on Mahayana Buddhism focusses
on the concept of emptiness and the response this provides to the metaphysics expressed in the Abhidharma. The latter chapter focuses on the
role of compassion, the figure of the Bodhisattva, and the idea that the
Buddha taught with what is called Skillful Means. The Abhidharma
and Mahayana Buddhism each claim to uphold the original understanding of the Buddha. And so in this respect, even though the book treads
beyond the Buddhas life, in particular with these chapters, it remains
throughout a philosophical discussion and elaboration of the Buddhas
thought. This concern with philosophically understanding the Buddhas
thought circumscribes this book. The book concludes with a discussion
of the Buddha as he is presented in the Parable of the Burning House
from the Lotus sutra. This is a coda that returns the book to the question
of the connection between truth and teachings in Buddhism.
A philosophical explanation aims to determine and assess underlying
reasoning, reconstitute arguments, consolidate views, and find internal
consistency. This is not different from the aims of non-philosophers such
as Indologists, Buddhologists and other specialists in religious studies and
the history of Buddhism, but there is a difference in how these aims are
addressed and fulfilled. While there is history in this book, the objective is not a specifically historical presentation but a philosophical one.
It is focussed on ideas and reasons that, while historically contextualized, are conceived and assessed in their own right, as if they are meant
to apply independently of historical circumstances of time and place.
Philosophers writing on Buddhism build and draw heavily upon the cautious and meticulous work of other scholars, and this book presents no
exception. Gaining understanding depends on others; we do not achieve
understanding alone. The aim of this book is to provide its reader with a
philosophical understanding of Buddhism. If it succeeds, this owes much
to the work of others. If it fails then it may be a leaky raft, in which case
it is best to find another.

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Lastly, I would like to say Thank-you to the following: First, to my


late parents, for their love, nurturing, and for placing me on the long
path and walking the beginning with me. I continue to be influenced by
them, even when I dont know it, or forget it. Second, to Grant MacEwan
University. I have been given opportunity, means, and encouragement
in pursuing this project. Included in this was funding from a MacEwan
Research, Scholarly Activity and Creative Achievement Grant and a
MacEwan Faculty of Arts and Science Research Grant for two research
trips: one to the College of Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University in
Seoul, South Korea, and the other to the Central Institute for Higher
Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India. The discussions I had, and the study
I was able to complete during both these trips, are much valued. Third,
to the many students I have had over the years who have taken Buddhist
and Asian Philosophy classes with me. I have improved in my ability
to talk about Buddhism, and to think about Buddhism, as a result of
our involved discussions. I have received more from them than I have
given to them. Fourth, to an undisclosed referee and the copyeditor at
Broadview Press, Bob Martin: both provided pointed and valuable feedback in the late stages of this manuscript. Last, and most of all, to my
wife Lindsey. We joked for a long time that the dedication of this book
should state that without her this book would have been completed years
earlier. This idea for a dedication was in jest, but not entirely so. There
is truth to it, although years is almost certainly an exaggeration. I did
not end up saying this in the dedication but I will say it to her here, in
the Preface: My dear, this book would have been written much earlier if
not for your interruptions. But it would have been a poor book and I a
poor author. Each interruption enriched me, even if at the time it did not
seem so. I learned about Buddhism with you and from you, in ways that
neither of us may fully fathom.

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I
Indian Contexts

General Themes of the Indian Philosophical Tradition

Bu ddh ism is consi de r e d a n unorthodox school within the Indian


philosophical tradition. It is unorthodox because of its rejection of key
principles or doctrines, but it does share the Indian traditions concerns
and themes. Generally speaking, its concerns are comparable, but its
responses are often not. This section will present a general description of
these shared themes.
The primary theme in the Indian philosophical tradition is a concern with suffering, particularly with overcoming suffering. While we
may all be experiencers of suffering, it does not follow from this that
we properly understand suffering. Overcoming suffering, it is thought,
requires first understanding the nature and causes of suffering. And this
involves understanding desire, for this is thought to be at the root of
suffering.
When we desire what we do not have, or to be rid of what we do
have, there is suffering. This is to say that suffering arises when there
is a gap between what we have and what we desire. Or more simply
put, suffering results from unsatisfied desires. Accordingly, there are two
1

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Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach

general approaches to close the gap between our actual condition and
our desired condition, and thereby lessen and overcome suffering.1 The
first is to try to satisfy our desires. If we achieve all we desire, then
there will be no suffering caused by unsatisfied desire. However, in
the Indian tradition, this approach to alleviating suffering is held to be
unsatisfactory. It is held to be impossible to fully satisfy our desires, and
so impossible to fully close the gap between our desires and our actual
state in this way. One reason for this is that we are creatures who do not
easily stay satisfied with what we have and are prone to want more. Our
minds often jump in quick succession from the satisfaction of one desire
to the pressing demands of another. Also, many desires such as hunger,
thirst, and sexual desire often do not stay satisfied for long before they
rise again. If many of our desires, once satisfied, arise with regularity,
then the gap between desires and our actual state cannot be permanently
closed. Another key reason that suffering cannot be effectively eradicated by satisfying desires is that there are many desires that we, being
mortal human beings, simply cannot satisfy. These include the desires
never to die, to remain ever youthful and healthy, and never to feel pain
or displeasure. Clearly, if suffering is caused by a gap between our desires
and our actual state, then this gap cannot be closed by trying to fully and
permanently satisfy all of our desires.
And so a second approach is offered for dealing with suffering and
closing the gap between our actual and desired state. This involves
trying to overcome our desires. If we manage to desire less, then our
desires will outstrip our actual state by that much less. If we desire very
little, then the disparity between our actual state and desired state will
be reduced to very little. This might seem odd, for it might seem that if
one doesnt give into desires, then one suffers more for it. But the point
is not simply to resist pressing desires; it is rather not to feel the pressure
and temptation of desires, and in this way the suffering of desire is to be
overcome. It was thought that this was the proper way to understand and

1 J.M. Koller makes this observation in speaking of the Indian tradition in his
(2007), p. 9.

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Indian Contexts

deal with the problem of suffering for it deals with suffering at its root,
which is desire, and tries to dig out this root. One might think that the
most promising route should be a mixed one: try to satisfy those desires
that can be satisfied, and try to undo or uproot others. But a mixed
solution, which would be divided in focus, would not focus squarely on
undoing the root cause of suffering which is desire. It would also not
offer a full solution for there will still be desires, such as for food, that
cannot be permanently satisfied, or eradicated, and insofar as unsatisfied
desires remain then suffering remains. The objective is to eliminate and
not just lessen desire-caused suffering and so an approach that tries to
overcome some desires while retaining other desires will not ultimately
suffice. Although Buddhism differs in its view of the root cause of suffering, it shares the view that the root is to be fully uprooted, that is, that
suffering is to be eliminated at its source rather than just lessened.
Removing desires, as opposed to satisfying them, requires much fortitude and strength of character. It involves not only being unmoved by
temptation, but ultimately not even feeling temptation (for to feel temptation is to feel desire, and hence suffer). And so a highly disciplined life
is called for. In the Indian tradition, the emphasis on suffering, by way
of its connection to desire, leads to an emphasis on discipline bodily,
moral, and mental as a means towards overcoming suffering. And with
this emphasis on self-discipline comes an emphasis on self-knowledge,
for one must know well what one seeks to control.1 Knowledge of self in
turn involves self-observation and reflection. And thus, as a result of this
connection between suffering and desire, a meditative and introspective
approach gains importance in the Indian tradition as a means towards
the goal of overcoming suffering.
Another important characteristic of the Indian philosophical tradition,
again speaking quite generally, is a preoccupation with subject-object
dualism. This is a dualism between, on the one hand, our selves or our
subjective awareness and, on the other hand, the objects of our awareness.

1 These points are observed by J.M. Koller in his (2007), p. 9.

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The objects of our awareness can be objects in the external world around
us or our own states of mind (internal states, such as desires and fears, are
objects of introspective awareness and in this respect fall under the object
side of this dualism). This dualism is thought to involve attachment to
self, and release from this dualism to be a release from self and also from
suffering.
In the history of the Western philosophical tradition, the dualism that
is the main preoccupation, and this is to still speak quite generally, is
the dualism between the physical and non-physical or the material and
immaterial. We see this, predominantly, in the concern with whether
there exists an immaterial god or immaterial soul (which, by virtue of its
immateriality, need not perish with the death of the material body). We
see this concern in Socrates, who was so confident in his reasons for the
existence of the immaterial and, he thought, immortal, soul that he did
not fear his impending execution.1 We see this concern among Western
medieval and theologically-minded philosophers, such as St. Augustine.
And we see it, most famously, with Descartes and his argument for the
indubitable and immaterial self. Descartes thought that it was possible
to entertain doubts about the existence of the body and of anything else
material (for instance, it is conceivable that we may be under the deceptive sway of a powerful, evil demon who makes us believe we have a
body by giving us false sensory information). But he thought that it was
not possible to doubt the existence of ones self (for if one is doubting,
one must exist to doubt; if one is thinking anything at all, one must
exist to do the thinking). He concluded that the existence of the self is
indubitable and that it must be immaterial and different from the body.
The philosopher George Berkeley and his metaphysical idealism opt for
the immaterial side of this dualism as capturing the nature of reality. In
the scientifically minded philosophical tradition of the twentieth century, there is an opting for materialism as capturing the nature of reality.
Materialist views of the mind and world show a preoccupation with the
dualism between the material and the immaterial by virtue of arguing
for one side of this dualism.

1 C.f. Platos Phaedo.

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Indian Contexts

In contrast, in the Indian philosophical tradition, a preoccupation with


the dualism between the material and the immaterial is comparatively
much less pronounced. The concern with whether the world and human
beings are to be thought of in purely material terms, or as a composite
of material and immaterial elements, or even as purely immaterial, is not
widespread. There are, certainly, thinkers or movements that ventured
into this debate (e.g., the materialist school Carvaka), but subject-object
dualism was much more the object of concern. This is different from the
dualism between the immaterial and the material and it implies no position on the material and/or immaterial constitution of the world. In the
Indian tradition, overcoming this divide between subject and object, or
self and world, was taken to be a principal objective, integral to eradicating suffering. An awareness was sought wherein the division between
ones subjective experience of the world and the world being experienced
is overcome, resulting in an experience of unity or oneness with reality.
In the Upanishads, realizing the identity between true subjective reality which is termed Atman or True Self (as opposed to ones individual,
ego-self ), and true objective reality termed Brahman, was thought to
be a complete and monistic experience of reality (these notions will be
elaborated in the sections below). With subject-object dualism in place
there is thought to be a limited and divided existence; a disparity between
self and world that results in an excessive focus on self, and an experience
of isolation, forlornness, incompleteness, and suffering.
Implicit in the concern with overcoming subject-object dualism is
a concern with overcoming, in some sense, the subject or self. In the
tradition of the Upanishads this involves overcoming the individual
ego-self or psychophysical self the self we are most familiar with in
favour of the egoless and non-individuated True Self or Atman. While
Buddhism rejects Atman or True Self and this rejection is a key reason
it is considered an unorthodox school in the Indian tradition it retains
the idea that attachment to an ego-self is the root of suffering and to
be overcome. The connection between attachment to self and suffering
will be discussed specifically in Chapters Four and Five, and is also a
theme running through the book. In Chapter Six, non-dualism will be
discussed in connection with the indescribability of Nirvana. And in

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Chapter Thirteen on Mahayana Buddhism, the topic of non-dualism


will be revisited and discussed in terms of a notion called emptiness.
In sum, while in important respects Buddhism presents a repudiation of the Indian Tradition in which it originates, in other important
respects Buddhism and its concerns fit squarely within this Indian
Tradition. It rejects the notion of True Self or Atman, but agrees with
the point that the attachment to the ego-self is suffered and to be overcome. Buddhism also agrees that the division between actual state and
desired state causes suffering, and further, that this suffered gap is to be
bridged through overcoming rather than satisfying desires. But, as will
be seen, Buddhism does not advocate trying to overcome all desires, but
rather a carefully conceived subset of problematic desires called cravings (trishna). In short, despite its differences with the Indian tradition in
which it develops (and for which it is deemed an unorthodox school
in the Indian tradition), Buddhism is still very much a part of this tradition in its preoccupation with suffering; its connection of suffering with
desire (in the form of cravings); the call for discipline in overcoming
desire; and in its concern with subject-object dualism and with overcoming attachment to self.

A Short Account of the Vedas and Upanishads

The Vedas are the ancient religious texts of India, dating as far back as
1500 BCE , and perhaps even further.1 The concluding portions of the
Vedas are called Upanishads. They represent the height of philosophical
or spiritual thought of the Vedas. They are also called Vedanta, which
literally means the end of the Vedas, both because they are the concluding portions of the Vedas and also, again, because they are viewed as
the unsurpassed thoughts of the Vedas.
Within the Upanishads there is an affirmation of a metaphysical
monism, but in other portions of the Vedas there is an espousal of both

1 Radhakrishnan and Moore (1957), p. 3.

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polytheism and monotheism. This section will elaborate these distinctions. In early portions of the Vedas the worship of natural forces is
advocated, and they are identified with deities or gods. For example,
Varuna is the god of the sky, Agni is the god of fire, and Indra of thunder
and lightning. Varuna is an overseer, ever observant of good and bad;
Agni represents powers of creation and destruction; and Indra is a very
popular god in the Vedas for, being a god of thunder, Indra symbolizes
the power and strength that is needed in life to vanquish enemies and
defend ones family and livelihood. In these ways, the powers associated
with these deities extend beyond the natural forces themselves. This is
a naturalistic polytheism as there are many gods and they are associated
with forces of nature. While these various gods are responsible for these
forces, and serve to maintain them, they are not the creators of these
natural forces.
Behind these natural forces, and the functioning of the universe in
general, lies an ordering principle to the universe. This ordering principle is called Rita. Rita literally means order or that which is fitted
together.1 The universe was seen to be a well-ordered whole and the
word Rita refers to this universal order and serves to make the universe
intelligible. And so, the various gods, by upholding and maintaining the
forces of nature, uphold and maintain the universal order, Rita. They
do not create Rita, just as they are not the creators of natural forces, but
they are charged with maintaining the natural forces and, by extension,
maintaining the universal order of Rita. While the gods serve to maintain Rita, Rita is still asserted to be prior to and more fundamental than
all the gods. And so, behind the movement and diversity of the forces
of nature, and behind all the various deities, lies a single, underlying
principle. Rita came to refer not only to the physical ordering of the
universe but also to an ideal moral ordering. And so the various deities,
by upholding Rita, were also serving to maintain justice and an ideal
ordering to the universe.2

1 Collins (1982), p. 41.


2 But not just the gods for, as Collins notes, this divine ordering activity is
to be supplemented by human effort Collins (1982), p. 41. (continued)

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While polytheism is espoused in portions of the Vedas, in other portions there is an espoused belief in one supreme god. This is monotheism,
or at least something approximating monotheism. Note that, even without an explicit espousal of monotheism, the principle of Rita provides a
basis for this way of thinking: Rita, as a single principle of order in the
universe, conveys that there is something that ties the universe together,
and that is responsible for its functioning and makes it a well-ordered
whole. Rita is thus consistent with the idea of a single supreme god
responsible for maintaining this order. A prominent (but not the only)
conception of this supreme god is Prajapati. The name Prajapati translates as father god, and this name is meant to convey that all created
beings are his children. The Rig Veda describes Prajapati as the lord of
all creatures. Some early portions of the Vedas convey that Prajapati is
the creator of the universe and that the universe came into existence out
of Prajapati himself. However, it is also suggested that Rita is prior to
Prajapati, and the significance of this is that there may still be something
more fundamental than even this supreme god. Prajapati is also identified with Shiva and Vishnu who are likewise viewed as supreme gods
among different Hindu traditions. This view of god is henotheistic in
that it involves the worship of one god but is also accepting of other deities or other conceptions of god.
Further in the Vedas, in the Upanishads, concerns are raised that apply
to both monotheism and polytheism. It was held that the true nature of
reality is one, that is, a whole without fundamental divisions or distinctions. Monotheism and polytheism presume fundamental divisions and
distinctions: distinctions between gods, or distinctions between god and
the world, or creator and creation. Distinctions were thought to be limitations, and to not be representative of the true nature of reality which
was thought to be singular and undivided. And so, in the Upanishads,
Kalupahana adds: The search was on for one single, ordaining, sustaining,
coordinating principle of which all known forces, laws, and movements are
manifestations. The earliest conception that satisfied all these conditions was
rta [rita], and for a while it proved sufficient because it embodied not only
physical but also spiritual (= sacrificial or ritualistic) and moral laws. It was
not created, but found a guardian in Varuna. Kalupahana (1992), p. 7.

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polytheism and monotheism give way to monism. In monism we find


the idea of a single underlying reality, a reality that does not admit of
a split between god and world, or between creator and creation. The
universe, gods, humans, and all reality are fundamentally one or the
same in essence. This monism was thought to escape description. This is
because any linguistic description involves making distinctions between
objects. And so, this monistic principle is simply referred to as That One
(tat ekam). With monism, god(s) and the universe are no longer seen as
separate; there is no division between creator and creation; nature and
the power behind nature are not distinct. Everything is fundamentally
one. The idea of monism is regarded as the philosophical height of the
Vedas. The entire universe, in all its complexity and its infinite extent,
is held to be essentially one. Everyday appearances are, of course, to the
contrary, and thus monism implies that these appearances are misleading. The idea of monism conveys that there is something underlying and
unifying behind the multifariousness of appearances.

The Philosophy of the Upanishads

The word Upanishad translates as sitting down near, as in sitting


down near a teacher or guru to receive a transmission of knowledge. The
Upanishads deal with the question of what is the true nature of reality,
or what is ultimate reality. The ancient authors rishis or sages were
seeking a reality more fundamental, more substantial, than the transitory world of everyday appearances. The sages were searching for what
underlies and makes possible the world we see around us. This reality
was taken to be without changes and distinctions but, at the same time,
underlie the appearances of change and distinction we see. It was a search
for an underlying monistic principle. The name given to this principle
was Brahman (as noted earlier, it was also referred to as That One).
Brahman translates as greatness or that which makes great (and is
derived from the root Brh which means to grow or enlarge). In the
Upanishads, Brahman comes to stand for the ultimate reality, the highest

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truth, and the essence of the universe. Brahman is that which gives life
and existence to the universe.
There cannot be an origin to Brahman, the monistic principle, and
neither can there be change in Brahman. Monism does not allow for
this. Having an origin implies development, and the unfolding of distinctions over time, whereas monism holds that there are no ultimately
real distinctions (for again, everything is fundamentally one). And so
there cannot be real change or movement. This means that, fundamentally, the universe is not only one, or non-dual, but that this oneness
implies that it is unchanging and without origin or end.
Monistic Brahman is also regarded as being beyond accurate description in language (for linguistic descriptions must employ concepts and
terms that make distinctions between things). And if Brahman cannot
be described, it follows that Brahman cannot be adequately conceived
either insofar as we must make distinctions when we think with
concepts (and note that this includes even elementary conceptual distinctions such as between is and is not, or existence and non-existence).
And thus, Brahman is held to be beyond the possibility of conceptual
understanding. Thus, the very words used here cannot convey a full and
true understanding of Brahman. Paradoxically, to assert the indescribability of Brahman is itself to offer a description, but it is considered to
be inadequate and, as with all descriptions, insufficient for appreciating
the true nature of Brahman. Indescribability is a theme to which we will
return in the discussion of Nirvana in Chapter Six.
If we cannot accurately describe Brahman in words, or conceptualize
Brahman in thought, then this raises an obstacle to knowing Brahman,
and thus to knowing the alleged Ultimate Reality. This is an epistemological problem: how can we know the true nature of things when our
very means of knowing be it conception or sensation or discursive
thought involve noticing distinctions or applying distinctions and thus
raise obstacles to acquiring the knowledge we seek? Our ordinary means
of knowing and cognizing are, by their nature, inadequate to this task.
With this consideration in mind some of these ancient sages turned their
attention inward, to the self, and asked an apparently different question:

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11

What is the true self? or What is the self in its most fundamental
existence? Just as it was thought that there was something more to the
changing world around us something unchanging and unifying it
was also thought that there was something more to the self than what we
are familiar with. Something more to our selves than what we see in a
mirror; something more than our egos, and our ever-changing bodies,
and ever-changing minds with their unceasing desires. This something
more was deemed to be our True Self.
The word given for this True Self is Atman.1 The word Atman
originally meant breath, and then gradually acquired the meaning of self
or soul. There is a distinction drawn between our individual selves
which vary, and undergo change in body, thought and mind, and the
absolute, unvarying and unchanging True Self. The former will be called
the ego-self, and sometimes also the empirical or psychophysical self, and
the latter, as noted, is Atman. With this view of Atman or True Self, a
key is found to the realization of Brahman or Ultimate Reality: while
Brahman cannot be known through the ordinary means of knowing
available to our individual selves, it was thought that Brahman can be
known through a direct realization of our innermost and truest Self. That
is, it was held that we can have direct access to the True Self, without
the mediation of language, thought, or sensation, and through this direct
inward experience we can encounter Brahman or Ultimate Reality.

The Identity of Brahman and Atman

Since Brahman was said to be beyond definition, beyond language, and


beyond the categories of human thought, the search for knowledge of
Ultimate Reality or Brahman appeared to be thwarted. Other than

1 Atman is also commonly transliterated as atman, beginning with a lowercase a. A reason for this is that there are no capital letters in Sanskrit.
The capitalized transliteration will be used herein in order to convey the
appropriate connotation in English and to remain consistent with the
transliterations of other Sanskrit words.

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stipulating a name, nothing can effectively be said about this Ultimate


Reality. However, it was realized that if Ultimate Reality is truly
monistic, then Ultimate Reality Brahman must not be distinct from
the ultimate and True Self Atman. Thus, an experience of Atman
would be an experience of Brahman. That is, if the True Self or Atman
can be experienced not through conceptual thought or description but
through direct unmediated experience then this is an experience of
Brahman. Ultimate Reality, quixotically perhaps, is to be experienced
through a turn inwards. The identity of Atman and Brahman, and the
realization that Brahman could be experienced through an experience of
Atman, are key conclusions of the Upanishads. The Upanishads proclaim
Tat tvam asi, meaning Thou art that (i.e., True Self is Ultimate
Reality). Note, though, that in realizing our True Self we would not
be realizing an individuated or personal self; this would not be Atman.
The True Self is not different for different people, as this would violate
the monism of Brahman. Presuming that reality is ultimately monistic,
the experience of this reality by way of an experience of the truest and
deepest self is not an experience that is essentially mine, or of me as an
individual person. It is not an experience of what I ordinarily identify
with my personal self or personality. It is an experience in which self
in an individuated sense disappears; it is an experience in which the
distinction between self and not self is overcome. In other words, the
truest self on the Upanishadic view is not individuated or distinct or
personal; the truest self is undifferentiated reality itself; it is Brahman.
The key to the experience of reality as a monistic whole lies in the inward
path of a direct and unmediated experience of the non-personal and yet
truest self. An excerpt from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad describes this:
Whoever knows thus, I am Brahman, becomes this all. Even the
gods cannot prevent his becoming thus, for he becomes their self
[Atman]. So whoever worships another divinity (than his self )
thinking that he is one and (Brahman) another, he knows not. He
is like an animal to the gods One should meditate only on the
Self as his (true) world. The work of him who meditates on the

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13

Self alone as his world is not exhausted for, out of that very Self he
creates whatever he desires.1
Once again, the True Self is not to be conceived of as the self of
change; the self that we describe in language; that we cognize through
thoughts; or that is moved by desire and fear. Rather, it is held to be
an immutable Self Atman and the experience of this is thought
to involve an unmediated and undivided conscious experience. The
Upanishads hold that knowledge of Atman is not an item of ordinary
knowledge gained through ordinary means; it is not knowledge gained
through sensation, or as the conclusion of an argument. It is an unconceptualized and unmediated experience gained through discipline and
concentration. It is an inwardly gained experience and so is strictly a
first-hand experience or knowledge. And thus, the identity of Atman and
Brahman would remain a hypothesis until one realizes this alleged truth
within oneself. Indian philosophy differs here from traditional Western
philosophy, for this great conclusion of the Upanishads would remain
a mere conjecture in the Western tradition, which, by and large, relies
on discursive reason and the requirement that knowledge be describable
and objectively verifiable. In the Indian tradition, while many truths can
certainly be recognized and known by reason, argument and empirical
observation, the most important truths of the universe and self can only
be fully realized by way of direct experience.
The nature of monism, we may say, severely limits epistemic
approaches. The means to knowledge must be direct, unmediated,
without cognizance of differentiation or variation but an experience
nonetheless. The ancient sages or rishis held that such an experience is
possible, but, due to the nature of monism, ultimately incommunicable;
it must be experienced by oneself to be known and realized. Those who
do realize Brahman would be mystics in the proper sense of the term
since the reality they experience is beyond clear communication (i.e., it
is mysterious to those who have not experienced).
1
The Principal Upanishads 1.4.10/15, pp. 168 and 171.

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The idea that Ultimate Reality or Brahman can only be experienced


through an inward turn to ones deepest and truest self raises to importance specific practices for carrying out this inward turn. These practices
involve an introspective and meditative approach as means for delving
within. They also involve self-discipline and perhaps ascetic approaches,
and this is because to realize ones True Self or Atman one has to overcome identifying oneself with ones thoughts, desires, fears, etc. To
desire Atman, for instance, is to remain mired within the distinction
of desired end and desiring agent. Ones attachment to ego must not
intrude in the effort to experience Atman (for this would be to be caught
up with ones ego-self, and not to approach the True Self ). Overcoming
desire and attachment, and disentangling from ones individual ego-self,
places much importance on techniques of self-discipline. These disciplining methods are termed yoga. Yoga is a general term referring to
discipline or technique; the original meaning of the term involved the
connotations of yoke or join, as in yoking or joining with god, or
Atman. Yoga involves bodily, mental and moral disciplining techniques,
and is to lead to the realization of Atman (the yoga practice we are most
familiar with Hatha Yoga or bodily postures is but one aspect or
technique within the disciplines of yoga). Yoga, and the ideal of self-discipline in general, is of profound importance in the spiritual practices of
the Indian tradition. And as will be seen, discipline techniques mental,
moral and physical are important in Buddhism as well.

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II
The Legend and Life of
the Buddha
Introduction

Th e wor d Bu ddh a m e a ns awakened one, or enlightened


one. Anyone who achieves enlightenment is thus a Buddha. It is held
within Buddhism that there have been many enlightened figures, many
buddhas. But generally speaking, Buddhism is still centred around
one enlightened figure in particular Gautama Buddha whose life
story and teachings are regarded as providing illumination and needed
guidance on the path to enlightenment. While the figure of Gautama
Buddha is indeed central within Buddhism, Buddhism does not depend
on Gautama Buddha as, say, Christianity does on the figure of Jesus
Christ, for Gautama is still one buddha among many.1 Indeed, as the
path towards enlightenment requires overcoming attachment to self and
personality something which will later be discussed in detail placing
exaggerated importance on the person of the Buddha, with a veneration

1 Peter Harvey states, As Buddha does not refer to a unique individual,


Buddhism is less focused on the person of its founder than is, for example,
Christianity. Harvey (1990), p. 1.

15

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that manifests as attachment to the personality of the Buddha, would be


an obstacle on the path towards enlightenment. Notwithstanding, the
life of Gautama Buddha is regarded as vital for the example it conveys
and the lessons it imparts for following the path to enlightenment.
What we know of the life of Gautama Buddha is largely a matter
of legend. Scriptures providing details of his life were written after he
died, and a canonical account of the Buddhas life was developed in
the first two centuries after his death. Also, the information we have
of the Buddhas life, including scriptural accounts, has been handed
down through many a telling and retelling. This is the basis we have for
an understanding of his life, but it is often difficult to separate what is
fact from what is myth. It is clear that much has been embellished and
mythologized in the accounts of the Buddhas life. As Thomas states,
The only firm ground from which we can start is not history, but the
fact that a legend in a definite form existed in the first and second centuries after the Buddhas death.1 There is good historical evidence that
the Buddha was a real figure, but again some aspects of his life have
been added upon or embellished, and this varies depending upon the
source. Nevertheless, despite variation, a fairly canonical account of the
life story of the Buddha does exist. While historical accuracy may not be
available, the ability of the Buddhas life story to convey key principles of
Buddhism its pedagogic value remains. This is a story of enlightenment, and an education in the method for reaching enlightenment.

The Early Life

Siddhartha is thought to have been a personal name of Gautama


Buddha. Gautama Buddha is also known as Sakyamuni Buddha. Muni
means sage, and Sakya was an area at the foothills of the Himalayas
where his father was said to have ruled. Sakyamuni thus means sage of
the Sakyan clan. Hereon we will refer to him as Gautama when speaking

1 Thomas (1949), p. 2.

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of him prior to his experience of enlightenment, and Gautama Buddha


or just Buddha or the Buddha after his alleged enlightenment.
The date of birth of the Buddha is thought to be around 486 BCE .
This date is an educated stab, more likely to be wrong than right as
a specific date, but does serve well in providing a rough approximation.1 He is said to have left home when he was twenty-nine, achieved
enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, and died at the age of eighty.
It is said that Gautama was born an aristocrat and a prince, the son of
a great king. Some details in the Buddhas life, as commonly depicted,
are clearly not accurate history, for example miraculous and superhuman feats (such as being able to speak at birth). This also applies to the
widely held claim that Gautama Buddha was the son of a great king of
the Sakyas. This could not have been since, as Williams says, We know
that his clan of the Sakyas had no king.2 As Gethin notes, in portraying Gautama as what we would call a king, the tradition is effectively
recording little more than he was, in European cultural terms, a member
of a locally important aristocratic family.3 Portraying the Gautama as a
prince, who lived in luxurious palaces with servants to cater to his every
whim conveys to us that, in material terms, Gautama had all that he
could ask for.
According to legend, Gautamas mother, Maya, had a dream that a
white elephant entered into her from her right side. Brahmin priests
predicted from this, and from thirty-two subtle but significant bodily
signs found on Gautamas infant body, that he would become a great
man. More specifically, it was predicted that Mayas child would either
become a great conquering king, or a spiritual leader of great consequence. Gautamas father, Suddhodana, did not want a priestly life for his
son; he did not want his son to become a holy man. Instead, he wanted
him to follow in his own footsteps, and become a commander and a
warrior. And so, as legend has it, Gautamas father did his utmost to
steer his son away from this spiritual fate by shielding him from certain


1 C.f. Williams (2000), p. 24.


2 Williams (2000), p. 26.
3 Gethin (1998), p. 15. See also Williams (2000), p. 26.

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troubles of life that might, were he to encounter them, lead him to take
up this spiritual path.
According to this legend, Gautama was intentionally kept away from
all sights of suffering. He was intentionally deceived by his father about
the inescapable troubles and maladies in the world. His father did this
to ensure that his son would not fall into a concern for the suffering of
humanity, and from this be inspired to take up the path of a spiritual
leader. Everything was done to promote a view of life as undying, young
and fresh. Gautama was attended to by good looking and youthful servants, male and female. He ate delicious food. Anyone who became ill
was taken away. Dirt, dead flowers, and decay were swept away. The
Buddha, later in life, is reported to have described his luxuriant palace
life to his disciples:
I was delicate, O monks, extremely delicate, excessively delicate.
In my fathers dwelling lotus-pools had been made, in one blue
lotuses, in another red, in another white, all for my sake. I used no
sandalwood that was not of Benares, my dress was of Benares cloth,
my tunic, my under-robe, my cloak. Night and day a white parasol
was held over me so that I should not be touched by cold or heat,
by dust or weeds or dew. I had three palaces, one for the cold season, one for the hot, and one for the season of rains. Through the
four rainy months, in the palace for the rainy season, entertained
by female minstrels I did not come down from the palace 1
The legend continues that one day, at the age of twenty-nine, he
wanted to leave the palace in order to see what was outside On some
accounts, this was done with the acquiescence of his father, but only
after his father had set a path (which was cleaned of decay), from which
Gautama then veered. On more common accounts, he left of his own
accord, with the compliance of his chariot driver, and without his
fathers knowledge. Either way, it is said that he ventured out of the
1
Anguttara Nikaya i 145, as quoted in Thomas (1949), p. 47.

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palace four times, before ultimately leaving for good, and that each time
he witnessed a sign.

The Four Signs

The first time out he saw an old man. The encounter with this first
sign an old man, and the kings response to his sons encounter is
described thus:
[The man was] worn out with old age, with broken teeth, grey
hair, bent, with broken down body, a stick in his hand, and trembling [Gautama] asked his charioteer what man is this?
Even his hair is not like that of others, and on hearing his reply
said, woe to birth, when the old age of one that is born shall be
known. With agitated heart he thereupon returned and ascended
his palace. The king asked why his son had returned so quickly.
O king, he has seen an old man, and on seeing an old man he will
leave the world. By this you are ruining me. Get together dancing girls for my son. If he enjoys luxury, he will have no thoughts
of leaving the world. And so saying he increased the guards, and
set them in all directions to the distance of a league.1
On the second trip outside the palace he encountered a sick man.
Again a similar scenario ensued. Gautama asked why he appeared the
way he did and his driver explained that he was sick and what it meant to
be sick. Gautama asked whether he too may become sick and the driver
said yes, that we are all liable to get sick. Gautama once again returned,
troubled, to the palace.
On the third trip outside the palace Gautama saw a shrouded corpse
attended by a crowd of mourners. He asked his driver what was going
on and the driver said that the shrouded person had died. He asked his
1
Mahapadana Sutta, Digha Nikaya ii 22 & 23, as quoted in Thomas (1949), p. 52.

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driver whether the same would happen to him and the driver said yes,
eventually, we all will die. And again, Gautama returned to the palace
troubled and unnerved.
On the fourth trip outside his palace he encountered a man with
shaven head, saffron robes, and a calm demeanour. He asked his driver
who this was and the driver said One who has gone forth.1 Gautama
wanted to know more and so spoke to the man about what it means to
go forth. The monk responded that he has gone forth from normal
societal life to lead a life in truth, goodness, compassion and contemplation. The serenity of this ascetic monk impressed Gautama very much.
While the first three signs are associated with suffering, the fourth
is a sign of the potential for a release from suffering. With the peaceful
demeanour of the one who has gone forth, despite the obvious and
inevitable sorrows and troubles of daily life, there is a sign of the possibility of a release from suffering through a spiritual life. It was this sign
that ultimately led Gautama to leave behind his luxuriant life and lead a
simpler, ascetic life. Gautama doesnt yet fully know what is involved in
going forth he receives no specific teachings but he is nonetheless
moved by the physical demeanour and comportment of the monk. He is
moved by his expression of peace and serenity in the midst of a troubled
world, seeming quite different from the expressions of anxiousness and
licentiousness displayed in neglect of a troubled world.
The king tried to maintain a certain lifestyle for Gautama by shielding
him from all sights of sickness, old age, and death, but it is very unlikely
that Gautama would not have ever encountered any of this, to that point,
of twenty-nine years. We would think that he must himself have been
sick at some point. He must at some point have witnessed or felt pain,
discomfort and distress. But the point of this life story, or at least of this
aspect, is not its historical veracity but its symbolic and pedagogic value.
It is a story of clear contrasts, between a luxuriant life in which the sight
of suffering is kept at bay and, in its next step, a life of ascetic deprivation
in which Gautama wilfully takes on hardship rather than unknowingly
1
Mahapadana Sutta, Digha Nikaya ii 28.

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avoiding it. As we will see in the next chapter, the Middle path that
Gautama is ultimately led to is rendered all the clearer for these contrasting lifestyles.
Sickness, old age, and death are signs that led Gautama to find an
alternative path in life. They are thought of as paradigmatic examples
of suffering and also, importantly, inevitable examples. Sickness is, for
most if not all, an inevitable feature of life at some time. Old age, unless
one dies young, is also inevitable (and aging is inevitable for all, young
and old). And death is truly inevitable for all mortals. This inevitability
is emphasized to Gautama in each of his first three trips outside the
palace walls by his charioteer, and each time this inevitability upsets
Gautama. The luxuriant life in the palace is meant to respond to these
paradigms of suffering by keeping them in abeyance, outside the walls of
the palace. It is a life that tries to attain bliss through enforced ignorance
of the inevitable. This life signifies a certain approach to dealing with
lifes difficulties: indulgence in comfort while keeping the troubles of
life out of sight and thereby, hopefully, out of mind. But once Gautama
realizes the inevitability of sickness, old age and death, his ignorance is
shed, and he realizes that his palace life does not provide a true remedy.
The palace life offers a temporary reprieve at best. Once knowledge of
the temporariness of this reprieve, and of the inevitability of sickness, old
age, and death are gained, the palace life cannot keep the realities of life
in abeyance anymore, no matter how high the walls. Gautama cannot
return to his earlier ignorance.
These paradigmatic and inevitable examples of suffering lead Gautama
to abandon his palace life. It is telling that Gautama recognizes their
inevitability, and is very troubled by it, but still decides to leave. It is telling because Gautama already realizes that overcoming suffering cannot
involve overcoming the experiences of old age, sickness and death (for
again, these are inescapable). A luxuriant palace life may offer comfort,
as long as one can keep these eventualities out of mind, but not a remedy. But neither does any life outside the palace walls offer a remedy. In
leaving the palace, Gautama chooses against a life of comfort as the best
way to deal with the inevitabilities of sickness, old age and death. He

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leaves to find a way to be at peace with these inevitabilities. Gautamas


palace life was likely as good an attempt as possible to evade old age,
sickness, and death. Since he leaves the palace to find a way to overcome
suffering, he must believe that old age, sickness and death are not really
suffering in themselves. Or at least, they are not the suffering he means
to overcome. He realizes, or is beginning to realize, that it is his desires
to never be old, get sick and die that need attending. In line with the
Indian tradition as discussed in the previous chapter, Gautama is making
an important connection between desire and suffering. It would be one
thing to leave the palace to find a cure for old age, sickness and death, for
this would be quite an exchange. But he left knowing he would find no
cure for old age, sickness and death. Instead, he left to find a cure for his
hearts agitation at the prospect of inevitable old age, sickness and death.
The end of suffering that he seeks is the end of this agitation of his heart.
One approach to avoid suffering from old age, sickness and death is
to seek to transcend human mortality to become a deity of a sort.
And there are stories of the Buddha that portray him as a deity (with
supra-human abilities to suit). Another approach is to seek to not be
troubled by, and in this way not suffer from, ones mortality. When
Gautama encounters the one who has gone forth, the fourth sign, he
encounters someone who, by all appearances, is still subject to old age,
sickness and death. But, despite these inevitabilities, he retains a calm
and peaceful nature. He is untroubled by his mortality. It is this fourth
sign that moves Gautama to follow suit, and this says something about
the understanding of suffering to come. Namely, suffering is not equated
with pain, old age, sickness or death. Rather, suffering results from ones
attitude towards these inevitabilities; it is a result of ones attachment or
cravings to never be sick, get old, and die. As a consequence, overcoming
suffering requires overcoming deeply set cravings and attachments, and
this in turn requires self-discipline and control. And so Gautama sets out
on a journey to better understand suffering, and to lead a life of greater
discipline and denial than he had previously led in his luxuriant palace
life. The following passage conveys the Buddhas reflections, at this juncture before leaving the palace, on old age:

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Then, O monks, did I, endowed with such majesty and such excessive delicacy, think thus, an ignorant, ordinary person, who is
himself subject to old age, not beyond the sphere of old age, on
seeing an old man is troubled, ashamed, and disgusted, extending
the thought to himself. I too am subject to old age, not beyond
the sphere of old age, and should I, who am subject to old age, not
beyond the sphere of old age, on seeing an old man be troubled,
ashamed, and disgusted? This seemed to me not fitting. As I thus
reflected on it, all the elation in youth utterly disappeared.1
This passage is followed by similar passages concerning sickness and
death. Note that the Buddha recounts here that it is not fitting for him
to be troubled, ashamed, and disgusted at the sight of an old man, in
particular when aging is also inevitable for him. Again, the implication
is not that he should not be made to grow old, but that he should not be
troubled by the prospect of becoming old, and he is upset with himself
for this. Gautama is questioning the nature of his desire (in this case, his
desire to not grow old), and is coming to realize that it is not by satisfying his desire that he will obtain success, but by quelling his desire.
And so, as legend has it, after having seen the fourth sign, and the
possibility it seemed to convey of a peaceful life, Gautama at the age of
twenty-nine made a decision to leave his palace life. In leaving, it is said
he left behind his wife and child. At the age of sixteen he was married, as
was the custom for an Indian nobleman of this age. His wifes name was
Yasodhara (although this name is not used in all accounts; for instance,
in the Pali canon, Bhadda Kaccana is also used). He had a son with her,
named Rahula (which means chain!). Being married and having a male
child is important in the Indian custom of the time (as it remains today).
It showed that Gautama had fulfilled his duties as a male and householder: he was a husband, fathered a son, and leaving them with material
means, he was thus ready to take the step of going forth. Today we
may view leaving behind a wife and child as reprehensible, even for the
1
Anguttara Nikaya i 45, as quoted in Thomas (1949), p. 51.

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purpose of pursuing a spiritual life. But in that time and context it was
seen as appropriate that a man fulfill these functions in life before leaving
to pursue a spiritual life. This makes discriminating legend from fact
even more difficult, particularly as early texts do not mention his having
a wife or child.1
In any event, unable to deal with his troubled thoughts he decided to
confront what seemed to be the cause of his misery: his desires to never
grow old, sick, or die. There is a gap here between his actual state and
his desired state which, as explained in Chapter One, is a suffered gap.
Given the inevitability of old age, sickness and death, the gap between
actuality and desire can never be closed by trying to satisfy these desires.
Luxury may help to keep ones mind away from thoughts of the inevitable through a steady stream of comforts, but it cannot close this gap.
It may seem that the next course of action should be to try to close this
gap by facing ones desires and untangling oneself from them. As noted
above, this requires discipline, denial and self-mastery as one tries to
overcome deep set desires. Accordingly, Gautama was led to renounce
his former life, and the comforts and luxuries it offered. And so, in the
middle of the night, after looking once more at his wife and son but
without waking them, and without his fathers knowing, he left the palace. Once in the forest, he sent back his horse, cut off his hair, cast off his
fine robes for coarse and simple cloths, and began his quest for liberation
from suffering.

1 Thomas states, the persons [the wife and son] are not mentioned in
the older tradition at all. The name Bhadd Kaccn [in the Pali canon] is
only one of the three or four persons identified by the later tradition with
Buddhas wife, and the identification is not made by the older texts. The
case stands exactly the same with Rhula. He is never mentioned in the
older texts as Buddhas son. Thomas (1949) p. 59. Thomas continues, That
Buddha should have had a wife is not only natural but according to Indian
ideas inevitable. To marry is one of the duties of a person living in the
world. The chroniclers did not need to start from the historic fact that the
Buddha had a wife and son it is certain that the tradition has preserved
no information about them. Thomas (1949), p. 60. And Kalupahana adds:
Doubts have been raised about whether the Buddha was married and had a
family because there are no specific references to these matters in the early
discourses. Kalupahana (1992), p. 23.

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Renunciation

Having left the palace, Gautama was in need of some instruction and
guidance, and sought out spiritual teachers gurus or yogis from
whom he could learn. The first he encountered was a yogi named Alara
Kalama. It was reported of Alara Kalama that he practiced a special kind
of meditation, one that allowed him to enter a sphere of nothingness.
This was a mystical trance attained by yogic concentration, in which
the mind goes beyond any apparent object and dwells on the thought of
nothingness.1 He taught this technique to Gautama, who quickly mastered it, so much so that Alara Kalama offered him joint leadership of his
group. But Gautama was not interested; he did not feel that the state of
meditation that Alara Kalama taught would lead to the cessation of suffering. While it was of value, and brought him stillness for a time, he did
not think this meditational trance carried enough insight into the nature
of suffering, and so he went on and found himself another teacher.
This next yogi was Uddaka Ramaputra. Uddaka Ramaputra taught
a meditational state described as a sphere of neither cognition nor noncognition. This is alleged to have been a deeper state of stillness than
that taught by Alara Kalama, one where consciousness is so attenuated
as to hardly exist.2 It was also one Gautama quickly mastered, so much
so that Uddaka Ramaputra recognized Gautama as his own teacher, and
Gautama was once again offered a position of leadership with Uddaka
Ramaputra. But Gautama again refused. He was not satisfied. He did not
think that he had found the answer to the cessation of suffering. Mishra
nicely elaborates Gautamas dissatisfaction with these first teachers:
The Buddha wasnt convinced, however, that meditation, as
practiced by the ascetics of his time, alone could lead to spiritual
transcendence. For one, the states achieved by meditation, no matter how deep, were temporary, comfortable abidings, as he put it,

1 Harvey (1990), p. 18.


2 Harvey (1990), p. 18.

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in the here and now. One emerged from them, even after a long
session, essentially unchanged. Concentration and endurance were
important means, but without a corresponding moral and intellectual development, they by themselves did not end suffering. The
Buddha saw this more clearly later. At the time, he knew only that
the techniques of both Kalama and Ramaputra had taken him thus
far and no further an important awareness in that it already set
him apart from those sramanas [ascetics] who were merely seeking
to justify their escape from social obligations, and easily fell prey to
pseudo-wisdom.1
If the meditational states that Gautama first learns are temporary,
comfortable abidings then in this respect they are on par with the
comfortable abidings of his former palace life. Whether one finds psychological comfort via pleasant physical surroundings, or through
trained mental states, both are escapist comforts that are a temporary
reprieve from the suffering that Gautama was trying to overcome. They
are a tempting deterrence from finding the path out of suffering.
Gautama certainly learned from both these gurus, but he needed to
learn and experience more. He felt he understood what he could from
the teachers available to him and needed a different approach. And so, at
this juncture, Gautama turns away from teachers. He begins to pursue
his own understanding, but not yet independently through his own path.
He turns to a practice that was (and still is) a time-honoured approach to
spiritual realization in India: asceticism.
Indeed, Gautama turned to an extreme asceticism, and soon attracted
five ascetic disciples of his own who were impressed by his devotion to
poverty and deprivation. Asceticism, especially in the extreme manner
allegedly practiced by Gautama, presented a different challenge than he
had experienced with Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra. With them
the challenge was to reach certain meditative states, and this presented
itself as a kind of cerebral challenge. As Mishra notes above, he could

1 Mishra (2004), p. 168.

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emerge from these states essentially unchanged. Asceticism presented


a different challenge: a very physical one that challenged his body and
its desires, and suggested the possibility that he may be able to defeat
his desires. The meditative states he learned may have allowed him to
better observe the desires at work in his mind, but asceticism presented
the opportunity to truly challenge his desires, and temptations, on the
battlefield of his own body.
Legend holds that Gautama took to asceticism as much as is humanly
possible with dire consequences for his physical state. In the following
passage, the Buddha reports on his physical condition:
The bones of my spine when bent and straightened were like a
row of spindles through the little food. As the beams of an old
shed stick out, so did my ribs stick out through the little food.
And as in a deep well was the deep low-lying sparkling of my eyes
through the little food. And as a bitter gourd cut off raw is cracked
and withered through wind and sun, so was the skin of my head
withered through the little food. When I thought I would touch
the skin of my stomach, I actually took hold of my spine, and when
I thought I would touch my spine, I took hold of the skin of my
stomach, so much did the skin of my stomach cling to my spine
through the little food. When I thought I would ease myself, I
thereupon fell prone through the little food. To relieve my body I
stroked my limbs with my hand and as I did so the decayed hairs
fell from my body through the little food.1
Eventually, after six long years of ascetic practice, Gautama was led to
believe that this severe mortification was not sufficient for achieving a
cessation of suffering. He learned to train and contain many of his desires,
to the extent of leaving himself emaciated, but had still not reached his
objective. In his ascetic life he tried, not to overcome the suffering that
comes with desires by satisfying them, but by trying to confront and
1
Mahasaccaka Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya i 245-6, as quoted in Thomas (1949), p. 66.

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uproot them. But Gautama found this course was also unsuccessful.
So he left his ascetic disciples, and ate some solid food. According
to legend, he was offered a meal of sweet milk and rice, and then he
bathed himself. He regained some strength and felt refreshed. He then
sat down under a tree a pipal tree (botanical name ficus religiosa sacred
fig), and this tree has come to be known as the Bodhi Tree or Tree of
Enlightenment. He resolved then and there not to stir until he found
peace and freedom from suffering. He affirms: Let only skin, sinew and
bone remain, let the flesh and blood dry in my body, but I will not give
up this seat without attaining complete awakening.1 After six days of
being seated in meditation, he is said to have emerged enlightened.
Upon enlightenment, at the end of this six day meditation, the Buddha
touched the earth. The gesture conveys that the earth is witness to
the Buddhas enlightenment, and the symbolism also suggests that
enlightenment is a grounded, and not a transcendent, experience; it is
not other-worldly. The results of this meditation, which led to his alleged
enlightenment or freedom from suffering, were the insights that form
the basics of Buddhist teachings. And the first of these to be discussed is
called the Middle Way.

1
Jataka i 71, as quoted in Gethin (1998), p. 22.

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III
Reading the Middle Way

Steering the Middle Course

Th e Bu ddh a w e n t f rom a life of luxury in his palaces, where he


lived for twenty-nine years, to a life of extreme poverty and asceticism
for six years. He found that both approaches were inadequate for overcoming suffering. Upon enlightenment, the Buddha began preaching
what is called the Middle Way or Middle Path.
At first, the Middle Way may seem to be a mid-point between the
extremes of palatial luxury and ascetic poverty. This would suggest that
the path to enlightenment involves a mean between extremes: a middleclass and middle-income lifestyle rather than upper or lower analogous
to the story of Goldilocks who found the first bowl of porridge too hot,
the next too cold, before hitting upon the third which was in-between
and just right: tepid. Such a mid-point is subject to change over time,
and varies from region to region, as standards of living change and vary,
and as available luxuries also vary and grow with material and technological change. A middle way construed as an arbitrary and fluctuating
mid-point involves a too literal reading of middle. The Buddha did
not turn to asceticism only to learn that he turned too far, and that he
29

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should have stopped mid-way between his princely and ascetic lives. A
more apt reading is to interpret the Buddha as advocating modesty and
moderation. There is merit to this reading, and it is an element of what
the Buddha preached. However, it is also a simplification. Moderation
does not by itself deal with the attachments and cravings that cause
suffering (for one can still have cravings and attachments while living
moderately or modestly). Indeed, one can even crave and be attached to
living moderately or modestly, and thereby suffer from any shortfall in,
or perceived threat to, this lifestyle.
In both the extremes of luxury and poverty, the Buddha noticed a
concern with the body: one in trying to grant its every wish and the
other in trying to deny its every wish. Asceticism places a great emphasis on the body, specifically on bodily denial and deprivation. This is
problematic on two counts. First, overcoming attachment and craving is largely a mental achievement, requiring mental discipline. The
Buddha did practice techniques of mental discipline prior to and during
his ascetic period, but there was still a focus during this ascetic period
on bodily denial, and this excessive focus undermines the capacity for
having a clear and well-functioning mind. A clear head requires that the
body be sufficiently fed. If the body is malnourished, the mind is debilitated. The mind is embodied, after all, and the extremes of asceticism
undermine the clear mental functioning needed to deal with craving and
attachment.
Second, if the objective of the ascetic life is to overcome desire fully,
then this objective cannot be obtained. It is impossible to never feel hungry or thirsty, or to not desire to breathe air when gasping for breath or
to sleep when long without sleep. This would be to try to overcome the
demands of human embodiment. As long as we remain creatures of flesh
and blood, overcoming desires such as these is impossible. Earlier it was
noted that old age, sickness and death are inevitable. Hence, overcoming the suffering associated with these cannot involve eliminating old
age, sickness and death; instead, it seems it must involve overcoming the
desires to never be old, sick or die. This seems to be the reasonable next
approach, and the ascetic path opts for this, finding the cause of suffering

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31

in desire. However, this view of desire, and the scope of desires needing
to be overcome, is much too broad. As noted, one cannot eliminate
certain desires and still be a functioning human being. And so while
eliminating sickness, old age and death is impossible, so is eliminating
all desire. And so both ends of the traditional approaches to dealing with
suffering through the satisfaction of desires and the elimination of
desires are insufficient for fully dealing with the problem of suffering.
The Buddhas life story, in moving from one extreme to the other, shows
the inadequacy of these traditional approaches. And even a lifestyle that
adopts a measure of both approaches trying to fully satisfy some desires
while trying to fully eliminate the remaining will bear the challenges
of both these approaches. This is because the objective is to eliminate
suffering entirely, and not just to reduce it. Simply put, unsatisfied desire,
at least to some extent, seems ineradicable from the human condition.
There is an important connection between suffering and desire; but
the ascetic path, according to Buddhism, does not get to the core of this
connection. The luxuriant life tries to satisfy desires as much as possible
while the ascetic path tries to undermine desires as much as possible.
In the life story of the Buddha, neither approach is presented as effectively discriminating among the desires that are problematic and cause
suffering from those that need not lead to suffering. The Middle Path
tries to rectify this by being more cognizant of the kinds of desire that
lead to suffering. These are termed cravings (trishna), and the difference
between craving and desire in general is that cravings are desires that
involve attachment to self. One craves in the interests of trying to satisfy
a self. It is this that is thought to be at the root of suffering. The Buddhist
concept of suffering will be elaborated more fully in the next chapter
and the notion of craving will be analysed in Chapter Five.
Both the life of luxury and ascetic poverty involve a concern with
the self. In the case of luxury, this is much clearer for the desires of the
self are being catered to; it is a life of self-indulgence. But the ascetic
can also have a preoccupation with the self through self-denial and selfmortification. The ascetic, while physically impoverished, may remain
with a strong attachment to ego. He may, for instance, be arrogant or

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high-minded about his ascetic accomplishments with little concern for


others. Compassion and selflessness, and moral dealings with others or
even just interactions with others, need not be a part of an ascetic life,
but, as will be seen later, they are important aspects of the Buddhas path
towards enlightenment.
The phrase Middle Way or Middle Path can be quite misleading,
for it is not touted simply because it is in the middle, but rather for setting out a path that is different from what the extremes hold in common.
The Middle Way differs in its concern with overcoming attachment to
self and craving; and for its emphasis not only on bodily discipline, but
also on mental and moral discipline (as set out in the Noble Eightfold
Path, which will be described in Chapter Seven).
The Buddha does not deny the traditional Indian position that suffering arises from the gap between ones actual condition and ones desired
state. But he does not accept it without qualification either. At the behest
of his father, his princely life tried to narrow the gap between desire and
actual state by trying to satisfy his desires. In his ascetic life, he sought
to narrow this gap by trying to satisfy his desires as little as possible, and
thereby to rid himself of desires as much as possible. The Middle Way
does not fully reject this traditional view of the source of suffering. And
neither does it fully reject the ascetic approach to lessening suffering by
lessening desire. Rather, it seeks to refine both this view (of suffering)
and this approach (of asceticism). The gap between desired and actual
states is still viewed as causing suffering, but not all desires are considered problematic. Likewise, the approach to overcoming suffering still
involves overcoming desire for this is still the root cause but again, it
is just that not all desires are to be overcome. Again, it is craving desire
that is motivated by attachment to ego or self that is to be overcome.
The Buddhist approach to dealing with suffering still relies on overcoming attachment and desire, but unlike the ascetic approach which is
heavy-handed, it aims to be more discerning.
To sum up, asceticism is unsuccessful because not all desires can
be extinguished. We cannot overcome hunger and thirst, even if we
can come to get by with very little. Second, the ascetic life is overly

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concerned with the body and specifically with denial of the body. The
Buddha, in recognizing that overcoming suffering requires overcoming
cravings and attachments to self, recognized that mental discipline is
crucial for this task. And for this a well-functioning body is needed to
attain to heights of mental discipline (for a malnourished body inhibits
a sound and clear mind). And third, the Buddhas asceticism, as with his
princely life, displayed a preoccupation with the self. The ascetic is consumed with self-denial, self-mortification, and while this may serve to
overcome many desires, this does not by itself undo attachment to self.
With the Middle Way we find a movement away from Indian approaches
that seek to achieve liberation through extreme poverty and asceticism.
The Middle Way, once again, is somewhat misnamed for it does not simply carve a path between two extremes (indulgence and deprivation), but
rejects points held in common by both extremes (attachment to self and
focus on the body). Viewing the Middle Way as simply a path of moderation ignores these crucial elements (for a moderate life may include
as much, or more, self-attachment as a life of luxury). Calling it the
Middle Way seems natural enough, given the extremes being rejected,
but this should not be interpreted simply or literally.

A Symbolic Reading

The Buddhas life is upheld as providing an example, indeed an exemplar, of the path to enlightenment. And yet, the Buddhist adherent is not
advised to do all that the Buddha did in his quest, but in fact to avoid
certain steps the Buddha took. The Middle Way is traditionally read as
commending the avoidance of both the paths of luxury and asceticism.
In this reading, the Buddhist adherent is advised to do as the Buddha said
to do, and not do all the Buddha himself did.
But there is also a symbolic reading of the Middle Way. According to
this, the princely and ascetic lifestyles that the Buddha led prior to the
Middle Path are not to be avoided, but rather provide a real trajectory on
the path to enlightenment. This symbolic reading is not at odds with the

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traditional reading, but complements it by adding a further layer of meaning to the life story of the Buddha. On this symbolic reading, we are or
at least many of us are already in the same predicament as was Gautama
as a luxuriant prince. We may not have the same degree of riches, but we
are alike to the extent that we seek comfort as a way of dealing with lifes
travails. Whether we strive for the pleasantness of riches, fame, glory,
success, or prestige; whether we pine to satisfy an addiction; whether
we indulge in entertainment, food, sex, sport, or chatter; or whether
we just need the comfort of being with others to avoid feeling forlorn,
we often seek comfort and distraction as a way of living life and dealing
with its roughness and challenges, and this is widespread for rich and
poor alike. Viewed in this manner, Gautamas luxuriant life signifies not
literally a princely life, but a life that seeks to deal with suffering through
an ignorance maintained in comfort, indulgence and escape. The palace
walls held secure for so long by Gautamas father, and which kept out
the sights of old age, sickness and death and kept Gautama locked in and
occupied with youthful and sensual pleasures are interpreted in this
symbolic reading as mental walls. These mental walls allow us to likewise maintain, or perhaps feign, ignorance of the realities of life; they are
mental walls kept in place through comforts and indulgences.
Williams elaborates this point further:
Gautama had been brought up radically to misperceive things. He
saw things one way, when they are really another way. His story
portrays in acute form the situation that the Buddhist claims all
unenlightened people are in, whether they realize it or not.1
The supposedly analogous deception is that we generally deal with the
prospects of such things as growing old and dying by turning our heads;
we seek comforting distractions. Old age and death are inevitabilities,
and we, for the most part, do not deal with our discomfort regarding
them squarely; or perhaps because we see no way to deal with these

1 Williams (2000), pp. 28-29.

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discomforts squarely, we avoid and evade. We may not be able to achieve


the level of comforts of Gautama in his fathers palace, but we often try
to deal with the challenges of human existence by seeking comforts, and
turn our eyes and minds away from perceived troubles through these
comforts. But there is also a disanalogy here with the Buddhas life story:
as noted above, Gautama was raised to misperceive; prior to having left the
palace, he was not troubled by the inevitability of old age, sickness and
death, not because he closed his eyes and mind to them, but because he
did not know of them according to legend, that is. This was an ignorance not of his own doing, but nevertheless maintained through comfort
and distraction. Once Gautama witnessed the first three signs, he could
not ignore them; he could not return to his previous luxuriant life. He
realized that old age, sickness and death were unavoidable, despite any
amount of comfort and riches. And thus, with the encouragement found
with the fourth sign of one who has gone forth and who seemed to be
at peace, he sought a different approach to dealing with suffering: one
which was not evasive and mired in comforts, but which was directed at
coming to terms with the root causes of suffering. The symbolic reading
does not deny that the luxuriant life is to be avoided, but it adds that
Gautamas starting point, symbolically construed, is also ours. We are
not all princes, but according to this reading there is nonetheless a shared
element: a turn to distraction and comfort that tries to keep certain realities of life out of sight and mind.
Gautamas ascetic turn can also be read symbolically as something
to be enjoined in a way. Symbolically read, the ascetic turn is a turning away; it is a self-critical step that involves becoming aware of and
confronting attachment to distraction and comfort as a way of dealing
with the realities of life. To read asceticism symbolically is to recognize
that distraction and comfort offer no real remedy for suffering, and that
one must learn through discipline and challenge not to seek escape
or solace in comfort. The ascetic turn, symbolically construed, does
not foreswear all comfort or luxury. Instead it tries to confront certain
motives for indulging in comfort and luxury: escape, avoidance, and
neglect of suffering. It challenges a wilful ignorance, a building of mental

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walls, similar to Gautamas palace walls, which keep certain undesirable


realities out of mind and at bay. The ascetic turn recognizes just as
Gautama recognized upon venturing outside his palace that a real and
lasting reprieve from suffering is not to be found in comfort, indulgence,
or the effects of wilful ignorance. Read in this manner, the ascetic turn
is asserting that the path to enlightenment the Middle Way has an
order. Asceticism, symbolically read, is preparation for undertaking the
further detachments from self of the Middle Way; it is a direct challenge
to indulgence and avoidance for these must be faced if suffering is to be
overcome. And just as reading the Buddhas luxuriant life symbolically
did not suppose that we all live as princes, reading his ascetic life symbolically does not require extremes of poverty and discomfort.
On this symbolic reading, the ascetic turn is not another sorry alternative before the discovery of the Middle Way; it is not a step from
which we would have to recoil back to the middle path for it is a step
on this middle path. The symbolic reading holds that we already find
ourselves on the path of luxury, analogous to the Buddhas princely life.
The ascetic turn is the leaving of this luxuriant life. Again, symbolically
construed, this leaving involves confronting the attachment to comfort
in ones mind, and ones predilections for avoidance and ignorance.
Symbolically read, it does not involve the extremes of asceticism but may
yet involve much dispossession, forfeiture of comfort, and discipline. All
this is a necessary step if self-oriented cravings and attachment to self
are to be overcome, and enlightenment achieved. The symbolic reading
does not conflict with the traditional reading, but complements it by
bringing out a further lesson to be learned from the Buddhas life story.
The symbolic reading does not deny that the literal extremes of luxury
and asceticism are to be avoided, but finds that when looked at symbolically, these major stages in the Buddhas life highlight an order on the
path to enlightenment that is applicable to all.

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Concluding Remarks

Returning to the traditional reading, the Middle Way is an expedient


to enlightenment, one that the Buddha himself did not see until after
his life as a prince and ascetic. The Buddha himself did not take the
most expeditious path to enlightenment. While the historical veracity
is unclear, portraying the life and legend of the Buddha in these terms
certainly has a pedagogic value: we see more clearly the virtue of the
Middle Way by being shown through the Buddhas own life story
that a life of luxury and a life of abject restraint are not sufficient for
overcoming suffering. This should be more persuasive than merely being
told the same through a teaching or doctrine. Furthermore, the Middle
Way allows for a simple interpretation of moderation and modesty that
is easier to appreciate and follow, and a more demanding interpretation
that involves fully overcoming craving and attachment to self. But the
Middle Way, on the traditional reading, conveys that the Buddhas own
path was not the most direct. This may be because, as the story is presented, he was simply not aware of the Middle Way prior to having lived
out the two extremes; or it may just be that, in the legend of the Buddha,
this is an effective way of conveying the virtues of a Middle Way (and of
course, it may be both). But what this also conveys is that the follower is
directed to do as the Buddha said and not do all that he actually did in
getting to the Middle Way.
What further complicates the matter is that the Buddha himself,
repeatedly, opted to charge his own path towards enlightenment. This
is in the nature of a religious pioneer, but it raises the question of how
the example of the Buddhas life is to be viewed. The Buddha, in leaving his fathers palace, chose to find his own path. In leaving his initial
teachers in yogic practice, he chose to find his own path. In leaving his
ascetic practice, and the ascetic disciples he had attracted, he chose to
find his own path. In leaving the Brahmanic practices that were common during his day, he was leaving behind the traditions of the Vedas
and Upanishads to find his own path. To look at the life of the Buddha,
one might draw the lesson that enlightenment must be pursued through

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ones own path, and this raises questions about how to think about the
role of the Buddhas teachings and the path they prescribe. In one view,
and this would be a traditionally religious view, the Buddhas teachings are universally correct and the teachings the Buddha encountered
from the various religious guides and gurus of his time were more or
less incorrect. But there is also in Buddhism the position that teachings,
including the Buddhas teachings, are not to be taken as statements of
universal and eternal truth, but as practical guides to be left aside when
no longer useful. This notion was introduced in the Preface with the
famous simile that likens the Buddhas teachings to a raft that is to be left
aside after being used to cross a river, rather than lugged around on ones
back (this simile and the notions it raises will be elaborated in Chapter
Fourteen). It is worth reminding ourselves, as we encounter Buddhist
concepts and doctrines in the coming chapters, that the objective of the
Buddhist path is a practical objective the end of suffering and the gaining of enlightenment (these are considered synonymous) and that the
value of any teaching is ultimately a consequence of its role in realizing
this objective.

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IV
The First Noble Truth:
Three Understandings of
Suffering
Introduction

Gauta m a li v e d a li f e of luxury for twenty-nine years, and as


an ascetic for six. He found each lifestyle inadequate for overcoming
suffering. After leaving his ascetic practice, Gautama sat and meditated
under a pipal tree and, with his mind quiet, he reflected on the nature
of suffering, about its origins, causes and the means to its dissolution. He
then experienced an awakening an enlightenment experience in which
he is said to have extinguished the suffering that had so long plagued
him and came to an understanding of the nature of human suffering
and the means to its elimination. This understanding of suffering and the
path to its elimination are encapsulated in his First Preaching, commonly called the Four Noble Truths. He spent the next forty-five years
helping others understand and overcome suffering in the sense in which
he himself came to understand and overcome.
39

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In brief, the Four Noble Truths are as follows:


1. There is suffering (duhkha)
2. Suffering is caused.
3. Suffering can be eliminated by eliminating its causes.
4. The way to eliminate the causes of suffering is to follow the
Noble Eightfold Path.
The concern of this chapter is the First Noble Truth. The Sanskrit
word that is being translated as suffering in this first Truth is duhkha.
This is the usual translation, but it is also commonly noted that this
is not a precise translation. Other translations are disharmony, unsatisfactoriness, ill, and sorrow. All these translations retain a negative
connotation. Coming to terms with the proper sense of duhkha is
important, for it is not quite suffering as we usually conceive of it. We
will translate duhkha as suffering, as this is most common, but it should
be kept in mind that a proper understanding of suffering in the Buddhist
conception is to be determined.

Pervasiveness and Eliminability

Notice that the First Noble Truth seems to say something quite obvious.
It should be clear that there is suffering in life to anyone who has lived
a little, and observed suffering in themselves or others. But the First
Noble Truth aims to say more than just what is very obvious. While
it is not stated in universal terms, so as to say all is suffering, the First
Noble Truth does not merely affirm that some suffering exists in life,1 or

1 Kalupahana notes that the Buddha was reluctant to present suffering as a


universal or all-inclusive truth: All or everything is suffering is a statement
that is conspicuously absent in the early discourses attributed to the Buddha.
A general statement about suffering is always concretized by the use of the
relative pronoun this. Thus the most general statement one can find in the
discourses reads, All this is suffering. This allows the Buddha to specify and
elaborate on the conception of suffering. Kalupahana (1992), p. 86.

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that there are some examples of suffering to be found. Instead, the First
Noble Truth asserts that suffering is widespread and pervasive in life;
it asserts that an unenlightened or unawakened existence is a suffered
existence.
The view of life as pervaded by suffering may make Buddhism seem
pessimistic. And this apparent pessimism would remain even if duhkha
were instead translated as ill, sorrow, or unsatisfactoriness. Given this
apparently pessimistic outlook, it may seem that Buddhism cannot be
of universal appeal, speaking only to those who already share this pessimistic worldview, and not to those who do not. After all, if you do
not believe that your life is pervaded by suffering, then the promise of a
path out of pervasive suffering should be of little appeal. Indeed, while
we all suffer some of the time, and some of us seem to suffer much of the
time, it does not seem correct to say that the lives of all (unenlightened)
people are pervaded by suffering. Thus, pervasive suffering faces a great
burden of proof: pervasive suffering requires that we must be suffering
even when we believe we are not. Buddhism aims to provide a general
diagnosis of the unenlightened condition of all, and not just of those
who already agree that life is pervaded by suffering. If this diagnosis of
suffering, captured in the First Noble Truth, is correct, then this means
that we can suffer, in some sense of the word, without realizing it. Being
able to suffer without realizing it implies that suffering in the Buddhist
conception must mean something different than the suffering we do
readily recognize.
In what follows, two elements of the Buddhist conception of suffering
will be elaborated. These are that suffering is pervasive and eliminable.
These two elements are necessary conditions of the Buddhist conception of suffering, and will guide the analysis of this conception. First, as
noted, the First Noble Truth holds that an unenlightened life is pervaded
by suffering. This need not mean that all of unenlightened life, in every
respect, is suffered; but it is to be read more strongly than as saying
merely that some suffering is present in life. The Second Noble Truth
asserts that suffering has causes and the Third Noble Truth that suffering can be eliminated by eliminating these causes. This brings us to a

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second key element in the Buddhist conception of suffering: suffering is


eliminable. The eliminability of suffering is integral to Buddhism and
the Buddhist path (which is supposed to find its end in Nirvana, the
extinguishing of suffering). If suffering is not pervasive but only occasional, then there is less, or little, motivation or reason for taking up
the Buddhist path. We can add that if suffering is not eliminable, then
there should seem to be no motivation or reason for taking up this path
(particularly when the Buddhist path is presented as finding its end in
the end of suffering). Both pervasiveness and eliminability are integral
for providing motivation and rationale for Buddhist practice.
In what has come to be known as the First Preaching (also known
as the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma) after his awakening,
the Buddha now that he is supposed to be enlightened we can call him
Buddha, and not just Gautama presented the Four Noble Truths and
their account of suffering. Below is a fuller presentation of these Truths
compared with the bare-bones version presented earlier. Of particular
interest for the concern of this chapter is the First Noble Truth, which
elaborates upon suffering.
(1) Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is
suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, pain, sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are suffering.
Contact with unpleasant things is suffering, not getting what one
wishes is suffering. In short the five aggregates of grasping are
suffering.
(2) Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the cause of suffering:
that craving, which leads to rebirth, combined with pleasure and
lust, finding pleasure here and there, namely the craving for passion, the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence.
(3) Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of pain:
the cessation without a remainder of that craving, abandonment,
forsaking, release, non-attachment.

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(4) Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to
the cessation of suffering: this is the noble Eightfold Path, namely,
right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.1
In the First Noble Truth above, the Buddha offers several examples
of suffering. It is common to find three groupings here.2 These three
groupings indicate three perspectives or understandings of suffering,
each conveying successively further insight into the nature of suffering
in the Buddhist conception. We will see that the third, which involves
what are called the aggregates (skandhas in Sanskrit, khandhas in Pali),
provides an understanding of suffering which underlies the first two.

The First Understanding

The first set of examples in the First Noble Truth above includes birth,
aging, sickness, death, pain, sorrow, lamentation, grief, and despair (this
list of examples varies among renditions and translations). This is an
ostensive definition definition by reference to examples and it is not
indicated in the First Noble Truth that this is an exhaustive list. It seems
clear that pain, sorrow, sickness, and despair involve suffering. Aging
and death, while they need not involve suffering (if one ages and dies
agreeably perhaps), they can and usually do. Birth is included in this list.
A mother, through the pains of pregnancy and childbirth, suffers; likewise, the infant may suffer pain and discomfort in being born. But birth
is also on this list of examples because it is the start of a suffered life; in
fact, it is commonly held that birth is the start of a cycle of suffered lives
or a transition between one suffered life and another.
While this list provides examples of suffering, they are inadequate for
proving that life is pervaded by suffering. For occasions of grief, there
1
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Saccasamyutta, Samyutta Nikaya V 421-22, p.
1844.
2 Cf. Williams (2000) pp. 42-43; Gethin (1998) p. 61; and Koller (2007) pp.
54-55.

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are occasions of joy (indeed, it may be the loss of this joy, such as from
the company and life of a loved one, which occasions this grief ). For
times of sickness there are times of health, for sickness involves the privation of health and could not be viewed as sickness without this contrast.
Likewise, aging is contrasted with youth, pain with pleasure, dejection
with cheerfulness, despair with ecstasy or euphoria, and so on. The list
does provide examples we commonly associate with suffering, but if not
for their positive counterparts, these examples would not have the connotation of suffering they carry (for each example of suffering here can
be viewed as resulting from the privation of its counterpart). Hence,
these examples alone do not prove that suffering is pervasive, but only
that suffering is common (and perhaps no more common than the opposite of suffering).
Moreover, included in this set of examples in the First Noble Truth
are examples that cannot be eliminated. If even possible, it would be
very difficult to eradicate experiences of sickness and pain from life; in a
coma or paralysis these are perhaps avoided, but not otherwise. Old age
is impossible to eradicate without dying early, and aging is altogether
impossible to eradicate. And death, so long as we remain mortal, is also
impossible to eradicate. However, the Third Noble Truth holds that suffering is eliminable; Nirvana is the extinguishing of suffering. Thus,
these examples including sickness, aging and death while they may
be associated with suffering, cannot by themselves be examples of suffering in the Buddhist sense. Gautama, of course, knew this upon leaving
the palace for he was told by his driver that sickness, aging, and death are
inevitable for all.
Sickness, aging and death cannot be interpreted as examples of suffering in the Buddhist conception unless Nirvana, the extinguishing of
suffering, is itself reinterpreted to involve immortality, and everlasting
youth and health. This would be to transcend the human condition and,
certainly, there are some legends that portray the Buddha as akin to a
deity. But this is misleading insofar as the Buddhas enlightened life is to
provide a human example for other humans to emulate. Also, it is held
that the Buddha did get ill, feel sorrow, age and die, and this additionally

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implies that the examples in this first grouping are not examples of
suffering in themselves, but examples we associate with suffering (and
thus, overcoming the suffering associated with these examples sickness, aging, death, etc. requires overcoming the association, and not
overcoming the experiences themselves). In sum, if Nirvana, the extinguishing of suffering, is humanly possible (as the legend of the Buddha
and the Third Noble Truth attest), then this first grouping of examples
cannot by itself convey the Buddhist conception of suffering. A deeper
understanding of suffering is required, and this takes us to the second
grouping in the First Noble Truth.

The Second Understanding

The second grouping is described in the First Noble Truth above as contact with the unpleasant, and not getting what one wants. It does seem
that not getting what you desire can lead to suffering, as can contact
with things that are unpleasant when they are not desired. The degree
of suffering, in both cases, is a function of the degree of desire for the
pleasant and the degree of desire to avoid the unpleasant (i.e., the more
we desire the pleasant end that we do not attain, the more we suffer). If
we cannot avoid something we dislike, or cannot have something we
desire, we suffer.
This second grouping takes a further step than the first grouping in
observing a relation between suffering and desire. It comments on the
nature of suffering, and conveys that the examples in the first grouping pain, illness, death, to name a few involve suffering because
we desire their opposite. For instance, this second grouping provides
an analysis according to which illness is not by itself suffering but that
suffering arises only when we are ill and desire not to be (after all, if one
desires ones ailment, then it does not seem suffered, at least not like the
suffering of one who desires to be without it). Presumably then, we can
be ill, even gravely ill, and not suffer as long as we have no desire to not
be ill. Thus, the first grouping gives us examples and circumstances that

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we usually associate with suffering. The second grouping informs us that


suffering arises not solely from our circumstance, but from our desire to
be in a different circumstance.
Recall that with the first grouping, sickness, old age and death are
neither pervasive nor eliminable features of life (and thus do not yield
an understanding of suffering under the Buddhist conception). A charitable interpretation of Buddhism and the path to enlightenment which
requires that we take seriously that suffering is pervasive and eliminable,
for these provide motivation and reason for taking up the Buddhist
path requires that we reject that the first grouping of examples can,
by themselves, provide an understanding of suffering in the Buddhist
conception. The second grouping falters similarly. While not getting
what one desires can be frustrating, this cannot be all that there is to
suffering in the Buddhist conception for there are also many cases, at
least for many people, of getting what one desires. This is to say that the
second grouping does not yield an understanding of pervasive suffering. Moreover, the association of suffering with unsatisfied desires does
not account for the eliminability of suffering in the Buddhist conception. For instance, the desire to eat, sleep or even breathe, may vary in
degree from one circumstance or person to the next, and the pull of
these desires may be lessened through self-discipline, but they cannot
be entirely eradicated. The desires to breathe when lacking oxygen, and
to sleep when one has gone long without sleep, are biologically rooted
reactions to a lack of air and sleep. Desires are not fully eradicable for the
embodied being. Hence, unsatisfied desire cannot be all that there is to
suffering in the Buddhist conception.
Freedom from suffering in the Buddhist conception does not portend a life free from pain, sickness, sorrow, grief, despair, death, or all
unsatisfied desires. Insofar as these bring unhappiness, it follows that
some unhappiness will remain and be a part of a life free from suffering
in the Buddhist sense. Additionally, since suffering is pervasive in the
Buddhist conception and since this implies that we can suffer even
when we believe we are not it follows that we can seem to be happy, to
ourselves and to others, and yet still be suffering in the Buddhist sense.

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Thus, under the Buddhist conception of suffering, we can both suffer


when we feel happy, and be free from suffering while also unhappy.
While freedom from suffering in the Buddhist sense of suffering may
bring happiness, it is not commensurate with, or simply equivalent to,
the feeling of happiness. Also, an absence of unhappiness in the presence
of other peoples pain and distress may compromise the ability to feel and
extend compassion to others. Compassion towards others is a significant
component of Mahayana Buddhism in particular, and Buddhism generally, and this further suggests that freedom from suffering is not to be
simply equated with freedom from unhappiness. This will be further
discussed in Chapter Fourteen.
Frustrated desires often are desires for permanence. Even if we are
healthy, wealthy, and young, and even if we feel we have all that we
presently desire, the thought that all this will not last is associated with
suffering. Even in the vigour of youth, the prospect and thought of giving way to age can cause suffering. In the midst of any desirable and
pleasant state, the prospect and thought of its impermanence can lurk.
And most of all, the prospect and thought of our inevitable death can
arise with any experience, pleasurable or not. Gautama, when he first
ventured out of his palace, was still living a life of tremendous luxury,
but all the same he became greatly troubled by thoughts of impermanence. He was told by his driver that he too would grow old, become
ill, and eventually die, and all this unnerved Gautama even though
he was, at the time, young, healthy, and very rich. The desire for an
unachievable permanence caused him to suffer. It might seem that an
appropriate course of action for overcoming this suffering is to overcome
the accompanying desires. We see this thinking in the move from an
understanding of suffering as per the first grouping of the First Noble
Truth to that of the second grouping, and in the move from Gautamas
life of luxury to his life of asceticism.
The three groupings of suffering in the First Noble Truth, and the
three understandings of suffering they yield, correspond to the three
main stages of the Buddhas life. The first grouping corresponds with
Gautamas palace life wherein suffering was associated with specific

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examples (sickness, old age, death) which were kept out of sight and
thereby, it was hoped, out of mind. These are examples that many of us
first think of when we think of suffering. The second grouping rejects
this view of suffered examples in favour of finding suffering in the
desires to be free of these examples. In finding the root cause of suffering
in desire, this second grouping presumes to offer a deeper understanding
of the nature of suffering and its mechanism. Suffering is not pain, on
this view, but the desire not to be in pain (which, as it happens, usually
accompanies the experience of pain and may be difficult to distinguish
from it). This second grouping thus suggests a course of action for dealing with suffering: to overcome desire. This understanding of suffering
corresponds to the second main stage of the Buddhas life: asceticism.
Gautama, while an ascetic, knew there was a connection between
desire and suffering. Asceticism can be seen as a response to this connection for, upon finding the root cause of suffering in desire, the ascetic
tries to overcome suffering, not by satisfying desires as much as possible,
but by diminishing desires as much as possible (for by continually lessening desire, the gap between ones actual state and ones desired state
narrows). As an ascetic, Gautama tried to combat his desires without
appropriately discriminating; he did not realize at the time what he later
claimed to know, namely, that it is craving (trishna), a specific kind of
desire, that is problematic. There are specific aspects of craving that differentiate them from other desires (and this will be attended to closely in
the next chapter), but the key factor that marks a craving, and that leads
to suffering in the Buddhist conception, is an attachment to self. It is
this understanding of suffering that corresponds to the third stage the
enlightened stage of the Buddhas life. It is this understanding of suffering that is given in the third grouping of the First Noble Truth.

The Third Understanding

The third grouping in the First Noble Truth, and the account of suffering it provides, is the key to understanding both the pervasiveness of

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suffering as well as the potential for its elimination. Suffering is pervasive, on this understanding, because of attachment to self, something we
generally take to be independent of our ever-changing psychophysical
states. The third grouping establishes the pervasiveness of suffering by
connecting it to the entrenchment of our attachment to self. We are
aware of our desires, hopes, and fears as the desires, hopes and fears of a
self; we pursue the satisfactions of desires, hopes, and fears, not simply
out of biological compulsion, but also to satisfy this sense of self. But
it is one thing to say this attachment to self is pervasive, and another
thing to say it is suffered (for this is not clear, especially given that we
often pursue the interests of our selves in order to relieve or avoid
suffering; this will be discussed further below). In addition, on this third
understanding, suffering is considered eliminable because it is held that
this attachment to self can be overcome. This is not to overcome all
desires, hopes, and fears, as an ascetic may attempt, but to overcome
attachment to self in ones desires, hopes and fears. For instance, there is
a difference between the desire to breathe when lacking oxygen, and the
connected and anxious thought that there is a self who will perish if this
desire is not satisfied. The former is unavoidable for again, some desires
arise simply in virtue of being embodied creatures with instinctive or
hard-wired reactions but the Buddhist conception holds that the latter,
through discipline, can be overcome.
Buddhism does not promise the eradication of the examples in the
first grouping of the First Noble Truth (e.g., pain, sickness, death).
Again, these are inevitable in the human condition. Without attachment
to self, these states will still occur, but there is cause to think that they
will not matter in quite the same way. For instance, the prospect of aging
and death will be less troubling if we do not view these as involving the
demise of an enduring self. Likewise, unsatisfied desires as presented in
the second grouping will still be experienced as they are an ineradicable
part of human existence. But without a sense of self vested in the desire,
there is again cause to think that this will not matter in quite the same
way. For instance, while being without food for a long time does cause
hunger which is a desire being without attachment to self means that

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it will not matter in quite the same way as when there is the accompanying anxious thought that the well-being, and perhaps existence, of a self
or ego is at stake with the unsatisfied hunger.
In the third and last part of the First Noble Truth it is said that the five
aggregates of grasping or attachment are suffering. The five aggregates
are the constituents of our awareness of self. It is held that there is nothing other than these five aggregates in our awareness of self; in particular,
there is no underlying and permanent entity that exists apart from these
constituents. Attaching a sense of permanent self hood to the aggregates
is asserted to be the root cause of suffering, and hence the aggregates
are known as aggregates of attachment. The lack of a permanent and
independent self is the claim of the doctrine of No Self. An argument
for the doctrine of No Self can be developed from an examination of the
five aggregates, and this will follow below (the doctrine will be further
discussed in Chapter Eight).

The Five Aggregates

The Buddha, after the First Preaching of the Four Noble Truths,
preached of the non-existence of self and soul. It is the existence of a self
in a substantive sense as an entity existing separately from the everchanging aggregates that is repudiated. This is held to be an entity
we identify with. It is an entity that seems to stand separately as agent
or author, and preside over and issue directives over our thoughts and
behaviours; an entity that stands as the subject of what happens to our
bodies and the viewer of what occurs in our minds; an entity that seems
to remain intact and, in some essential respect unchanged, through all
the changes that occur to our minds and bodies. Careful attention to the
five aggregates yields an argument for No Self that repudiates the notion
of self in these sorts of considerations.
The primary method for the Buddha, in determining that there is
no substantial self or soul, was empiricist: the judgement was based on
careful observation. Observing the states of his body, and the contents

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of his mind, he observed that there is nothing that remains constant in


his awareness. There is no entity observed with the qualities listed in
the paragraph above. The body changes through the processes it undergoes, and the contents of the mind are observed to be in constant flux.
Through observation, the Buddha finds no underlying and unchanging self that stands behind his mental and physical processes; rather, he
observes only the processes. He calls these processes the five aggregates
of attachment (skandhas in Sanskrit, and khandhas in Pali). The aggregates
refer to the different sorts of things the Buddha encountered in carrying
out this careful inward investigation. These five aggregates are bodily
processes, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness,
and our false sense of being a self is said to be built from attachment to
these aggregates.
1. Bodily Processes
The first aggregate is standardly interpreted to refer to our body and its
different physical states and processes. The idea here is that our sense of
self what we take to be our self is no more than a composite of this
body and its states, together with the mental states and processes identified in the other aggregates. In looking to my body and its processes,
there is nothing that I find that is my self. True enough, there are bodily
parts, states and processes that I associate with myself and as belonging to
myself, but the thought is that I do not take these to be the same as my
self. For instance, I can speak of my eyes, my stomach, my indigestion,
or my body. The body and its states, at least in our way of speaking, are
possessed by the self. The self is presumed to be that which directs and
moves the body, experiences the things that happen to the body, but to
not be the same thing as the body.
With this first aggregate, two interpretations will be considered. The
first, just noted, is that the first aggregate refers to the physical body and
its physical processes (rupa). This is the standard interpretation. A second,
nonstandard interpretation is that this first aggregate involves, not the
actual body and its physical processes, but the awareness of the body and
its processes. The remaining four aggregates all involve mental states and

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contents that we can observe introspectively. The second interpretation


of this first aggregate involves viewing it in the same manner as these
other aggregates.
As just noted, the standard view favours interpreting the first aggregate as referring to our actual bodily states and processes (rupa skandha).
But this view faces some difficulties. First, it renders the first aggregate
dissimilar from the rest, for it speaks of physical states and processes
whereas the other aggregates all speak of mental states and processes.
On this standard interpretation, the physical components of this first
aggregate could not be objects encountered in the minds eye through
an act of introspection or meditation, as the other aggregates are able
to be encountered. The other aggregates, as we will soon see, are all
introspectible mental states, and thus the Buddhas empiricism his
methodology of observation would be differently employed for this
first aggregate than for the others (note that speaking of mental states in
contrast to physical states involves using terms that refer to the contents
of our minds as we observe them from a first person point of view, and
does not imply that the mental states are non-physical or immaterial). In
a similar vein, the doctrine of Impermanence applies to the aggregates
and asserts that the aggregates arise and pass. But this sense of impermanence as involving arising and passing is more clearly applicable to
mental states than to physical states (for while physical states do change
ceaselessly, their manner of change is categorically unlike the quick arising and passing of mental states from the minds awareness). Being able
to apply the doctrine of Impermanence univocally and consistently is
again a reason for reading the first aggregate in a manner similar to the
others (this sense of impermanence as involving arising and passing will
be discussed in Chapter Nine).
The standard interpretation of the first aggregate, as referring to the
physical body and its processes, is additionally challenged by the following question, which at first may not seem obvious: why stop at
these physical boundaries? To elaborate, the aggregates are supposed
to include all that we can encounter and associate with our sense of
self. We certainly do associate our bodies with our self-concept, and
this is accommodated in the first aggregate. But the question arises as

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to whether other physical entities that are closely identified with ones
sense of self should also be included as aggregates. For instance, if I have
a keepsake that has been handed down in my family for generations,
and if this keepsake has a story and special meaning and contributes
significantly to my sense of self, and to my sense of being an abiding or
continuing entity over time, then for the sake of consistency and completeness, it seems that this keepsake should be listed as an aggregate (for
it is also a possible constituent of my sense of being a continuous self ).
Furthermore, why not include a persons wardrobe, or house, or car, if
these physical items also contribute to a persons identity and sense of
being a continuing self? Or why not abstract items such as principles or
causes or careers, for these might also be similarly associated and identified? Or what of other entities that may be judged to exist and that may
be closely associated with ones sense of being an enduring self over time,
such as a ghost or a spirit or a god? The monist, for instance, may want
to include all physical (and non-physical) reality in his conception of self
(i.e., his True Self or Atman), and thus, all reality should presumably
be included as an aggregate (for again, the aggregates are to include all
constituents that may be attached to or identified with ones sense of
self ). Once we view the first aggregate as pertaining to the physical body
and its states, we run the danger of treading into absurdity, for then
other things (physical and non-physical, concrete and abstract, earthly
and divine) that may also exist separately from our sensations, perceptions, and other mental aggregates, and that we may associate or identify
with our sense of self or self-concept, should also be listed as aggregates.
Once again, if the conclusion to be drawn is that nothing among the
aggregates can account for our self-concept as an enduring entity over
time, then the categories of the aggregates should include all that can be
encountered and associated with this self-concept. But once we venture
beyond the contents of the mind in accounting for this self-concept, then
there is no reason to stop with just the physical body. Anything can then
be an aggregate if it is identified with our sense of self.
The aggregates catalogue the building blocks of our self-concept.
Based on the observations of the aggregates, the Buddha concludes
that none of these, singularly or collectively, justify the substantive

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self-concept to which we are attached. In light of the above discussion,


it seems that a charitable reading of the Argument from the Aggregates
(which is what this argument for no self will be called), warrants interpreting this first aggregate as not referring to the body and its processes
themselves, but to the awareness of the body and its processes. This
interpretation does not question the existence of the physical body, or of
physical substance generally; but it does convey that the argument for no
self that is based on the observation of the aggregates runs into difficulty
when the aggregates include the physical body. Admittedly though, this
is not the standard interpretation. The standard interpretation is clearly
exegetically supported, but the other interpretation given here seems to
serve argumentative consistency better (and that is why it is raised). For
our purposes though, it is enough to draw attention to and elucidate
the different approaches to this first aggregate, and to critically consider
them, without having to render a verdict.
2. Sensations
It is held that there are six kinds of sensations, and they are each either
pleasurable, painful, or neutral. The first five kinds of sensations are a
product of the contact between our bodies our sense organs in particular and the external world. These include sensations gained through
contact of the eyes with visible forms, the ears with sounds, the nose
with odours, the tongue with tastes, and tactile sensations involving
contact with the bodys surface. The sixth kind are internal sensations
involving the contact of the mind with mental objects. The mind is
considered here as akin to a sixth sense faculty; as providing a sixth
basis for sensation, on par with the other five (but not a mysterious or
paranormal sixth sense faculty). Unlike the other five, mind sensations
are gained introspectively. The difference between mind and eye sensations, for instance, is not the nature of the sensation (for both may be a
sensation of redness, for instance), but their source. The eye comes into
contact with external visible forms, and this produces sensations. But
similar sensations may also arise inwardly in introspective observation,
perhaps through imagining or recollecting. Since these are not directly

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caused by contact with external visible forms, or involve the outer sense
modalities, a sixth faculty an inner sense faculty is needed to account
for these. To be clear, the only difference between mind sensations and
the others is their proximate or immediate cause: if the immediate cause
of a sensation is your recollecting, imagining, or hallucinating it, that is,
if the proximate or immediate cause is your own mind, then it is called
a mind sensation; if the proximate or immediate cause is your sensory
organs being affected by something external, then it is not a mind sensation but one of the others.
3. Perceptions
Perception is different from sensation in that it incorporates concep
tualization. Thus, I might have a visual sensation of something small
reddish and round, but when I see it with immediacy as a red apple, then
that is a perception. A perception involves seeing something as something,
subsuming sense data under a concept; it involves recognizing something
as being the cause of our sensations. A sensation, in contrast, imparts only
raw sensory data without interpretation or conceptualization. Thus, a
perception is different from a sensation due to its cognitive and conceptual content. Thus, when I see a pen, or book, or chair, this is regarded
as a perception because it involves not just being affected by sense data
but the application of a concept or category in experiencing that sense
data. Like sensations, perceptions are of six kinds: five corresponding to
the different sense faculties plus mind perceptions. For example, if I hear
words spoken on the radio, then this involves auditory perceptions. If I
later recall and hear those words in my minds ear, then the immediate
cause is not my ear coming into contact with sound waves, but recollection in my mind, which renders it a mind perception.
4. Mental Formations Intentional and Volitional Activity
This aggregate involves our responses to perceptions and includes
instances of our will, intentions, and dispositions or inclinations. For
instance, I may see a scrumptious chocolate cake (a perception) and be
led to a desire for cake (an intention, or intentional state). This aggregate

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includes states such as desires, fears, hopes, likes, dislikes, loves, hatreds,
expectations, etc. These are intentional states, to use a philosophical
term. Intentional states are so called because they have an object towards
which they intend; that is, they are mental states that are directed at or
about something, be it a person, place or thing (e.g., a particular desire is
always a desire for something, a fear is a fear of or about something). The
connection between an intentional state and the object towards which it
intends can involve an attachment to self, that is, an egoistic concern for
ones self. In so doing, the connection is said to be karmic, or generate
karma, and cause suffering. The attachment to self or ego within intentional states will be elaborated in the next chapter in its discussion of
cravings. The Buddhist understanding of karma will be discussed later
in Chapter Eleven.
5. Consciousness
The last aggregate consciousness includes states of awareness, including the awareness of the other aggregates. There is a difference between
having perceptions and desires, and being aware of having perceptions
and desires. The latter is not itself a perception or desire, and the aggregate of consciousness includes these states of awareness. To elaborate,
there is a difference between perceiving a tree, and my being aware of
perceiving a tree. Both are introspectible contents of my mind. I can
notice the perception as a content in my mind, and I can notice that
I am aware of the perception as a content in my mind. The awareness
of other mental states is a mental state itself and one of which we can
be introspectively aware. These states of awareness are included in the
aggregate of consciousness. It is in the aggregate of consciousness that
reflection and higher-order awareness (i.e., being aware of being aware)
are included.

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The Buddha and David Hume

These aggregates are the sorting categories for the contents of our minds.
They are supposed to encompass all that we encounter in our conscious
minds and that we associate with our sense of self. The Buddha contends
that our sense of self is no more than a composite product of these aggregates. Whenever we are aware of ourselves, whenever we look within
and observe, we find only one or more of these aggregates at work; one
or more of bodily states and processes, sensations, perceptions, volitions
or intentions, or instances of conscious awareness. We observe that these
aggregates are in constant flux, and we observe nothing else nothing
enduring and stable outside of or underlying these aggregates. There is
no agent or owner or subject or soul encountered as existing apart from
these aggregates. There is, in other words, nothing to ground a belief in
and attachment to a permanent self. Whether or not the classification of
mental content in terms of the five aggregates is exhaustive of all possible mental content, or whether or not it fits well with contemporary
classifications of mental content, is beside the point of this argument for
No Self. What matters for the argument is whether anything that can be
observed or experienced can serve to justify a belief in, and attachment
to, a permanent self or soul. The Buddha, carefully carrying out these
observations, concluded not.
This line of argument is empiricist. It is making a judgement about
what can be known to exist based on what is or can be observed, and
the line of argument is very similar to that of another empiricist, David
Hume. Hume stated:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I
always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or
cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can
catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe
any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed
for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself,
and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions

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removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor
love, nor hate, after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely
annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me
a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudiced
reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess
I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he
may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different
in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and
continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no
such principle in me.1
Hume noted that in introspective awareness, we observe nothing
other than various mental states: beliefs, thoughts, emotions, feelings,
memories, etc., all of which he grouped under the term perceptions;
we observe nothing that stands as owner or agent to these mental states.
We do not encounter the believer behind a belief, the thinker behind
a thought, the viewer of an inner image, etc. Even when we recall a
memory, or conjure an image of ourselves, that is just to encounter
another thought, another mental object or image, and not a self that
stands behind the thought or image. Descartes contended that so long as
I am thinking I can know that I exist, for it seemed to him that thought
is impossible without a thing having the thought. Hume, relying on an
empiricist methodology, attested that we do not encounter or experience
any such thinking thing. Basing his judgement of what exists on what
can be observed or experienced, he argued that the sense of self we have,
and are familiar with, is simply a composite or bundle of various mental
states, without a permanent self or owner standing behind this bundle
and its states. This has since been known as the bundle or no owner
theory of self.
The Buddha argued in a similar empiricist fashion to Hume (although
this is not the only Buddhist line of argument for the doctrine of No
Self, as will be seen in Chapter Eight). It is an argument realized in

1 Humes Treatise of Human Nature 1.4.6. Italics are Humes.

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the course of mindful, inward awareness or meditation. The Buddha,


as Hume, also noted that these observed processes are always in flux.
Hence, not only is there no agent observed behind any given mental
state no thinker observed behind the thought but also, there is no
justification for the claim of a permanent entity if all that is observed
or experienced is impermanent. If everything experienced comes and
goes from the minds awareness, then there is no empiricist basis for the
judgement of a permanent or abiding self. This connects the doctrines
of No Self and Impermanence, which will be discussed more fully in
Chapter Nine.
Importantly, the Buddha, and here he differs from Hume, held that
the realization of No Self had practical consequences. He advocated that
his followers realize fully, which is to do more than just to come to
believe, the lack of the existence of a permanent and independent self. It
is held that for all of us who are unenlightened, the sense of being a self,
in the substantive sense indicated, is strong and entrenched. It is part and
parcel of how we see the world; how we interact with others; and how
we think of our own ambitions, desires, plans, etc. Overcoming the suffering that is said to come with this attachment to self involves significant
psychological change. The Buddha famously asserted: If a man should
conquer in battle a thousand and a thousand more, and another man
should conquer himself, his would be the greater victory, because the
greatest of victories is victory over oneself.1 In the Buddhist conception,
the pervasiveness of this attachment to self its presence throughout our
thoughts and behaviours, cravings and aversions, accounts for the pervasiveness of suffering. But suffering is also held to be eliminable because it
is held that this attachment can be overcome, since it involves identifying with a non-existent entity. Fully realizing that this abiding self does
not exist involves not just a change in belief, but a wholesale reform of
thoughts, intentions, desires, behaviours, and more.
As discussed, we cannot escape suffering as understood in the first
two groupings of the First Noble Truth without escaping our mortality
1
Dhammapada, Ch. 8, 103.

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and our embodied existences. However, we can overcome suffering


as understood in the third grouping because attachment to a sense of
self (as being something that exists separately from the ever-in-flux
psychophysical aggregates) is alleged to be an unnecessary and eliminable attachment. That is, suffering according to the third grouping is
not caused by our embodied and mortal natures, but by psychological
attachments and cravings that keep this sense of self in place. The undoing of these attachments and cravings thus serves to undo the cause of
this suffering. This is to undo a delusion for which we are ourselves ultimately responsible and to which we are closely attached. To overcome
this, careful and honest self-examination is advocated in Buddhism. It
is asserted that if we look carefully at our psychophysical states, we will
find no self that stands independent from these states. But again, the
objective is not simply to amend this belief. In the Buddhist view, even
upon amending the belief in self, the attachment to self may persist in
our desires, hopes, aversions, behaviours, and more (this is to speak to the
affective component as opposed to solely the cognitive component of
our attachment to self, and it is the harder component to dislodge). That
we can explicitly hold a belief in no self but, quite easily, demonstrate
the contrary attachment in our behaviour and intentional states is telling
and important for Buddhism. It means that an attachment to self can be
much more entrenched than we recognize, and can persist even after the
belief in a permanent self is explicitly rejected. In the Buddhist view,
our attachments to self and thus the roots of suffering in the Buddhist
conception run very deep.

Concluding Remarks

Serious questions can be raised concerning why attachment to self


should be construed as suffering, particularly because it seems that such
an attachment can bring many apparent benefits. For starters, attachment
to self can bring about pleasures that would not otherwise be experienced, for often we will pursue and indulge in comforts, not simply for

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the pleasant feelings they arouse, but for the pleasantness they arouse to
our sense of self. Chocolate has a very nice taste, but the pleasure I gain
from eating chocolate is not just the taste to the palette, but the pleasure
of satisfying a self through the palette.
Also, the attachment to self carries survival advantages for an individual. For instance, a person may avoid the prospect of bodily harm not
only out of a desire to avoid the accompanying pain, or out of instinct,
but also out of conscious thoughts of self-preservation. With an attachment to self, the conscious aversion to pain is not simply an aversion to
the sensation, but an aversion to causing oneself pain and harm, and this
adds impetus to averting pain and harm. We can readily conceive of
attachment to self as being an adaptive mechanism which is naturally
selected, for it provides further incentive for self-preservation. Another
example: worrying over a school grade can be worrying for ones self, and
display attachment to self. Presumably, suffering in the form of worrying
over a grade can be eliminated by stopping the worrying. This may be
difficult, but Buddhism offers techniques for mental discipline that can
be used for this. But to eliminate the worrying is to eliminate something
that can be seen to have value: the worrying for ones self may lead
one to work harder, to be more careful, and thereby it can lead one to
succeed. The concern for self and furthering self-interest can, in other
ways as well, lead individuals to strive and succeed. The elimination of
attachment to self may eliminate suffering in the Buddhist conception,
but it is not without consequence and the loss of much that we at present
value. While Buddhism does not advocate for abandoning a sense of self,
it does prescribe overcoming attachment to self in the specific sense of
something permanent and independent of the ever-changing aggregates.
But as just described, this attachment can be a source of pleasure, benefit
and survival advantage.
The first grouping of the First Noble Truth gave us examples, such
as sickness, old age and death, which we readily associate with suffering.
The second grouping was also in line with an intuitive understanding of
suffering for it is clear that unsatisfied desires are often frustrating. With
the third grouping, we arrive at a conception of suffering that is supposed

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to lie deeper, and that can account for both the necessary elements of the
pervasiveness and eliminability of suffering in the Buddhist conception
(and thus the third grouping yields the only understanding of suffering
among the three groupings that fits the Buddhist conception; it is, to
emphasize, the only potentially eliminable suffering). But in doing so
we have also veered further away from an intuitive and obvious understanding of suffering (and even if we look to the other connotations of
duhkha, involving unsatisfactoriness or sorrow, it is still far from clear
that attachment to self must imply the pervasiveness of these qualities).
If we begin to question whether the Buddhist conception of suffering
is really suffered, we question whether there really is motivation for, or
benefit to, taking up the Buddhist path (which is described as having
its point and purpose in the end of suffering). The Buddhist conception of suffering, involving an attachment of self to the ever-changing
aggregates, may be better described as a spiritual suffering (and this may
be a suffering that we do not readily recognize as such without being
of the appropriate mindset and preparation, and perhaps it is only really
recognized as suffering upon its alleviation). Indeed, the very pervasiveness of suffering in the Buddhist conception may explain why we may
not recognize it as suffering: we lack the experience of being without
this sort of suffering, and so may not recognize that we suffer in this way
because we lack a contrasting perspective. Still, if we are to call it a kind
of suffering spiritual or not there should be a recognizable reason for
calling it so. This concern will be further attended to in the next two
chapters, on suffering and craving and the end of suffering respectively.

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V
The Second Noble Truth:
An Analysis of Craving
Introduction

As discussed in the last chapter, the three groupings of suffering in the


First Noble Truth correspond to the three stages of the Buddhas life.
The first grouping, with its examples, conveys how suffering is usually
conceived: pain, sickness, aging, etc. Thus, the way to avoid suffering is
to not be in pain, not get sick, old and die, and ideally these should not
be brought into mind either. This is what Gautamas palatial life tried
to bestow (by keeping all signs of sickness, old age, and death outside
the walls). The second grouping shows an understanding of suffering
that corresponds to the Buddhas ascetic life. The second grouping
observes that the root cause of suffering is desire, and specifically unsatisfied desire. Thus, pain need not be suffered as long as one is disciplined
enough to not be bothered by the pain. In his ascetic life, the Buddha
underwent severe conditioning and impoverishment in order to lessen
his desires and to overcome the temptations of his desires. The third
grouping corresponds to the Buddhas enlightened life as he realized that
it was not just any desire that instigated suffering, but desires that involve
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an attachment to self (specifically, to the sense of being an enduring self


that is independent of the ever-in-flux aggregates). This specific kind of
desire is called craving (trishna, which translates literally as thirst). The
Second Noble Truth asserts that cravings are the cause of suffering. This
chapter will analyse the notion of craving and its connection to suffering, and the distinction between cravings and other desires that are not
cravings.
Craving is a kind of desire that involves attachment to self. To illustrate, hunger is a natural response to an empty stomach. It is an evolved
reaction to a need for sustenance and nutrition, and cannot be eliminated entirely (and as hunger also manifests as a kind of pain, the pains of
hunger cannot be eliminated entirely either). For the adept ascetic who
is habituated to living off very little food, it is nevertheless unavoidable
to feel some hunger to desire some food when the stomach is empty
(particularly so when it has been without food for a long time). The
ascetic may be disciplined enough to deal easily with this hunger, but the
desire itself is biologically rooted and will still arise. But in the Buddhist
conception, the desire for food need not be suffered, even when it is
unsatisfied. Suffering in the Buddhist conception arises when we have
a craving for food; when the desire involves trying to satisfy a self who
yearns for food. This craving for food this trying to satisfy a self over
and above trying to meet a biological requirement is held to be eliminable. Without an invested sense of self in the hunger, the hunger may
remain but it will not be a craving. Likewise, one may be in pain, or
grief, but these need not be suffered according to the Buddha. Suffering
arises when we crave, in order to assuage a sense of self, to not be in pain
or grief. According to the Buddha, cravings can with training and discipline be uprooted. They involve attachment to an entity that is held
to not exist. This is the sense of suffering to be overcome and, unlike
the pang of an empty stomach and the biologically rooted response of
desiring food, it is the only suffering that can potentially be overcome.
Once we divorce pain, sorrow, etc., from attachment to self, then an
important dimension of these experiences is removed. Again, there will
still be pain (for instance, there will still be specific neuronal responses

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resulting from exterior tissue damage due to a cut or lesion). But there
will not be the associated anxiety and trepidation that comes with thinking of a me that is in pain. Without this dimension, states such as grief
and sorrow may remain, but presumably would be very different, and
perhaps diminished, without a sense of a me that is in grief, or of my sorrow. Investing a sense of self in ones hunger or pain can cause suffering
that is over and above the feelings of hunger and pain. The experiences
are exacerbated when it is thought that there is a self who will suffer
from the hunger and pain, and who will benefit from their alleviation. It
is this dimension that is held to be eliminable by the Buddha.
An attachment to self may add to the need for expediency in resolving
a feeling such as hunger. It may lead to the thought or fear or anxiety
that ones well-being, and perhaps ones very self, is at stake with the
unsatisfied hunger, and this may add impetus to finding food to satisfy
the hunger.1 But in the Buddhist view, while it may add urgency to our
desires, and press us to bring about their satisfaction, attachment to self is
also held to be suffered.

Craving and Permanence

According to Buddhist doctrine, impermanence is an aspect of our


world that is closely linked to suffering. It might seem that a desire for
permanence must cause suffering, for, in an impermanent world, it must
end in frustration. The desire for immortality is an example. However,
this thinking is too quick: suffering in the Buddhist conception is not
simply a matter of a desire for permanence in an impermanent world; it
must be a craving to be suffered.
Consider that some desires for permanent states of affairs such as a
desire for a lasting world peace need not cause suffering in the Buddhist
sense. An unsatisfied desire for a lasting world peace may be upsetting.
But there are many unsatisfied desires that can be upsetting and painful

1 See the closing section of the previous chapter for further discussion of this.

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(such as continuing thirst, hunger, etc.). As already explained, unsatisfied


desires need not be suffered under the Buddhist conception of suffering
(for if they were, suffering could not be eliminated for not all desires can
either be entirely satisfied or eliminated). Therefore, while a desire for
permanence (such as for permanent world peace) may remain unsatisfied, this does not by itself imply that it must be a suffered desire. The
mere inclusion of permanence in an unsatisfied desire does not alone
make the difference between suffering and not suffering. Only if the
desire for permanence is a craving only if it involves a concern for an
enduring or permanent self does the desire for permanence involve
suffering in the Buddhist conception.
A craving is a special kind of desire; one that entails the existence
of the desirers continuing self. To illustrate this, consider a desire for
the fleeting experience of sexual gratification. The lack of this gratification might indeed be distressing, but this is not by itself suffering in the
Buddhist sense. But suppose that whats desired is that I be a person who
experiences sexual gratification that is, that a continuing I be the
subject of this experience that this continuing subject be in one state
rather than another (even though that state may be fleeting). This is the
kind of desire that is being called a craving, and this is what Buddhism
aims to free one from. Not, in this case, by providing sexual gratification, but rather by removing the desirers concern about his continuing
self. Having at least some unsatisfied desires is an inevitability in life
and the Buddhas unsuccessful experience with asceticism is supposed to
show this. We cant expect the world to conform to all our desires, and
we cant make all our desires conform to the world. What we can do
though, according to the Buddha, is eliminate cravings.
As discussed, the Buddha, in the third grouping of the First Noble
Truth, links suffering to the five aggregates (which are referred to as
the aggregates of attachment). These aggregates are the constituents we
associate with our sense of self. These are called aggregates of attachment because we readily attach a sense of self to these aggregates (as
when we think along the lines of my body, my desires, my sensations, my
feelings, etc.). While the aggregates are ever-changing, the sense of self

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we attach to the aggregates is thought to remain the same through these


changes. It is the subject or experiencer of the changing aggregates that,
in some essential capacity, is presumed to remain the same or permanent
over time. It is held that we attach a sense of permanent self hood to the
ever-changing aggregates and in this way suffering is connected to permanence. Our concept of self does seem to presume permanence, that
is, a continuing existence as the same entity over time. This is evident in
the way we speak for we use the same word, I, to refer to ourselves at
different times in our lives despite the many changes we have undergone
and continue to undergo. This attachment to permanence may involve
the presumption of being an undying and unchanging soul, or it may
just be the sense of being the same self through the changes experienced
through ones lifetime. But again, it is attachment to a sense of permanence of being the same self in some essential respect over time that
is involved with cravings and is the source of suffering in the Buddhist
conception (the notion of remaining the same self over time will be
discussed again in Chapters Nine and Eleven).

Craving and Wanting A Difference in Kind

In order to clarify terminology, we will stipulate a difference between


cravings and wants as different kinds of desires: cravings are desires
vested with a sense of self and pursued in the interest of satisfying this
self, and wants are desires that are not vested with a sense of self, and
are not pursued in the interests of satisfying a sense of self.1 The former
lead to suffering in the Buddhist conception while the latter do not. And
thus the end of suffering Nirvana or Enlightenment involves the
elimination of cravings but not of wants. Wanting, after all, cannot be
entirely eliminated anyway; many of the activities we do, from getting
up, to brushing our teeth, to making turns while driving a car, to doing
our daily chores and tasks, may not get done without there being wants

1 See also Williams (2000), p. 44.

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leading the way. When I get up to brush my teeth I need not explicitly
tell myself that I want to do so, but there may still be a want leading
the way (without which I may skip brushing). Furthermore, there is no
contradiction in saying that enlightenment involves the elimination of
cravings and also saying that it is an objective that can be wanted (and thus
desired) for these are different in kind. Cravings for enlightenment must
end if enlightenment is to be achieved, but wanting enlightenment
which is equivalent to wanting to end cravings is not only possible but
necessary for leading to practices for reaching enlightenment.1
When we crave we do not just want with more emphasis, or with
greater intensity. Again, craving involves attachment to self; it involves
the feeling or sense that something is at stake for oneself in ones desires
(we might say that it involves the sense of being a stakeholder in ones
desires). Cravings are pursued in the interest of satisfying ones sense of
self and unsatisfied cravings are felt as suffered by this sense of self. The
difference between cravings and wants is one of kind, and not just of
degree, and this underlies why cravings cause Buddhist suffering while
wants do not.
In order to see this more clearly, let us suppose the converse is true,
namely, that cravings and wants do not differ in kind but only in degree
(i.e., suppose that cravings are strong or burning desires and wants are
weak desires with no other relevant difference). There are a number of
difficulties with this view. For one, a strong desire, without attachment
to self, need not be problematic in the Buddhist view. An example is a
strong, but selfless, desire for world peace. If a strong desire is unsatisfied,

1 Williams elaborates upon this distinction: it does not follow from wanting something that one has a craving for it. The Buddhas alms-round was
not the result of craving Thus it was not considered faulty, and certainly
not contradictory (as people sometimes tell me) for a Buddhist to want
enlightenment. A Buddhist wants enlightenment in the sense that wanting
something is a condition of freely and intentionally engaging in practices
to bring it about. It is indeed faulty to have craving for enlightenment and,
since the Buddhist path is precisely designed to bring craving to an end, to
want enlightenment is to want practices which will eliminate among other
things craving after enlightenment itself. There is no contradiction in any of
this. Williams (2000), p. 44.

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frustration may ensue (and presumably more frustration than for a


weakly felt desire). But merely being an unsatisfied desire is not sufficient
for constituting suffering in the Buddhist conception. As explained in
the previous chapter, unsatisfied desires are unavoidable in life while
suffering in the Buddhist sense is held to be eliminable. Some desires
weak and strong are just unavoidable consequences of being embodied
creatures (e.g., the desire for sleep is unavoidable given a length of time
without sleep, and fittingly, a strong desire for sleep is unavoidable given
a very long time without sleep). The eliminability of suffering means
that cravings cannot simply be strong desires.
In addition, we can observe that many desires become stronger the
longer they remain unsatisfied (as is the case with the above-mentioned
desire for sleep). If the difference between wanting and craving is solely
one of degree, then at some point the want for sleep becomes a craving
merely in virtue of becoming sleepier. A difficulty with this is that it is
not clear at what point this turn is made (for again, we are supposing, for
the sake of consideration, that there is no difference of kind that could
mark the turn). Moreover, saying that only strong desires cause suffering
under the Buddhist conception suggests that we should aim to satisfy
desires while they are still weak and before they become strong. Thus, to
avoid incurring suffering, we should give in to desires for food, sex, ill
will, vengeance, wrath, etc., while they are weak, and before they have
a chance to grow strong. This, however, promotes a licentiousness that is
at odds with the Buddhist emphasis on discipline and compassion on the
path to enlightenment. Strength of desire may usually or often be part
of craving; cravings, for instance, may often be felt as burning desires,
and this for reason of being wound up with trying to satisfy a sense of
self. But merely being a strong desire is not sufficient for being a craving.
Simply characterizing the difference between craving and wanting in
terms of a difference in degree a difference in strength of desire does
not bring out the character of craving. There is a difference in kind that
must be accounted for, and the following two sections will elaborate this.

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The Character of Craving Qualitative Observations

The Buddha, upon enlightenment, is held to have overcome attachment


to self, and with this a whole set, but not all, of his desires were extinguished. These desires have been called cravings. Clearly, we associate
pain, sorrow, sickness, and many unsatisfied desires with suffering; this
is true now just as it was in the Buddhas time. That these need not
involve suffering under the Buddhist conception tells us that there is
something special about this conception of suffering; something that,
once overcome, does not stop pain, sickness and unsatisfied desires from
being experienced, but does stop them from being suffered in some way
(or from being unsatisfactory in some way, to use another connotation
of duhkha). And hence there is something special about the nature of
craving, and something special about the investment of a sense of self in
a craving, that makes it suffered. There is a difference between feeling
pain or sickness, and feeling pain or sickness with attachment to self;
there is, in other words, a difference in kind between mere wanting and
craving. This section will elaborate upon this difference in kind, and the
special characteristics of craving.
To begin, it is important to note that attachment to self may usually, but need not always, involve selfishness. It is the attachment to
being a self in the sense of something permanent and independent of the
ever-changing aggregates that is problematic in the Buddhist view, and
this can be present in even unselfish people. As noted, a presumption
of the Buddhist conception of suffering is that suffering is pervasive. If
attachment to self simply meant selfishness, then suffering would not be
pervasive for many of us are not predominantly selfish, and a few of us
are rarely selfish. Again, it is the attachment to the sense of being a permanent self, separate from the ever-changing aggregates, that explains
the pervasiveness of suffering in Buddhism (and unselfish persons can
still believe and feel themselves to be a self in this sense, and be attached
to this self, while still being generally unselfish). Unselfishness, or selflessness, certainly plays an important role in overcoming attachment to
self, but it is not sufficient. The Noble Eightfold Path, to be discussed in

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Chapter Seven, delineates steps that involve unselfish action and thought,
but also steps that require other disciplining measures as well.
The attachment to self in a craving is not to an actual self, for this is
held to be nonexistent. Instead, it is to what we feel or sense to be a self.
This is a more visceral attachment than the mere belief in a self. The
attachment is emotive and affective. For instance, we pursue the satisfaction of many desires in the interest of satisfying not simply the desire, but
a self or subject that feels the pangs of the desire; we feel unsatisfied desires
not merely as feelings of being unsatisfied or hungry or frustrated, but as
a self that is unsatisfied, hungry and frustrated. Attachment to self adds
a dimension to the pursuit of desire, and to the experience of unsatisfied
desires. This is an affective addition that makes a difference to the experience of the desire. And it is an introspectively observable difference.
The involvement of attachment to self makes craving feel qualitatively
different than mere wanting (to use a contemporary philosophical term,
we can say that there is a difference in qualia with craving). For instance,
there is an inwardly observable difference between just feeling hungry,
and feeling myself to be hungry (the latter, for instance, may involve a
feeling that there is something more something of myself perhaps at
stake in feeling hungry). The introspectible difference involves a sense of
someone suffering with the unsatisfied craving. Suffering in the Buddhist
conception involves this added affective dimension to desire. And thus
the elimination of suffering should remove this added affective dimension while perhaps leaving other aspects of the desire in place.
Introspectively appreciating this qualitative difference between wants
and cravings may not be easy. For instance, I may have a craving for
food, but may not be aware of it as a craving. That is, I may not be aware
of the attachment to self in the desire; I may be thinking only of the
food and not of the self that is to be satisfied with the food. This does not
mean that attachment to self is not present, for it need not be consciously
registered for it to be present. Attachment to self may not lie on the
surface, and it may not lie near the surface either. And so introspectively
observing attachment to self may need very close attention. Also, it is
worth noting that the act of introspection may add a concern for self, or

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attachment to self, that may not have been present in the original experience (i.e., introspecting or reflecting may unwittingly change a want
into a craving). For instance, in introspectively observing or reflecting
on feeling sleepy I may notice that I am sleepy. But the thought and
attachment to I or self may not have been present in the original desire
for sleep; it may have just been a want for sleep that became a craving
that is, came to involve an ego-conscious concern for self in the act of
self-examination. Clearly, self-examination for the Buddhist needs to be
done with care.
There is a difference between feeling hungry and feeling my self to be
hungry: the former is a want and the latter is a craving. Merely recognizing that I am hungry need not turn the hunger from a want to a craving.
Even recognizing the hunger as being in my body, or in my stomach,
need not turn the hunger into a craving (for locating the hunger in my
body, or in my stomach, may be just to give it a location, or associate it
with an individual, and need not involve attachment to self ). But recognizing the feeling of hunger as the feeling of a hungry self can transform
the hunger into a craving. This is because the feeling of being the hungry me is different from the feeling of just being hungry. Wants may
become cravings, not simply by being observed as wants, but by being
observed, and felt, as my wants. Also, note that a craving is not simply
a conjoined state formed from two separable components: the feeling
of being hungry and the feeling of myself, for it involves the feeling of
hunger as my hunger. The addition of an attachment to self to a want
is not simply an addition on top of the want; rather, it transforms the
want. Since Buddhism holds that suffering can be eliminated, this means
that cravings can be transformed into wants, or uprooted entirely. The
next section will offer some further elucidation of this difference in kind
between wants and cravings with observations on the formal complexity
or structure of cravings.

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The Character of Craving Formal Observations

One way to explain the difference in kind between wants and cravings
is to say they differ in their attitude. To illustrate, a hope and fear may
be directed at the same object but they differ in their attitude towards
that object. For example, a hope for rain is quite different in its attitude towards rain than a fear of rain. They can both be said to involve
desire but in different ways: to hope involves desiring for something
to come about and to fear involves desiring that something not come
about. Likewise with craving and wanting. They are similar for neither
is indifferent to the end attained; both involve desiring or preferring.
But they can be said to differ in their attitude towards this end. One
way to explain this difference in attitude is to say that craving involves
an attitude of desirousness or covetousness whereas wanting does not.
Bahm makes just this point.1 Craving involves desirousness, but wanting
is desiring without being desirous. There is something appropriate about
this characterization, and it works with cravings involving an attachment to self. That is, we are more likely to be desirous, or covet, when
we are trying to satisfy a sense of self than when we are only following
through on a brute biological desire without concerns for self. One can
be hungry without being desirous or coveting; but to be desirous in
ones hunger goes beyond just being hungry.
Bahm takes this analysis of desire further with a discussion of
differently ordered states. He observes that desires occur at different
levels or orders. This is not a novel observation, but his application of
it in thinking through Buddhist suffering is noteworthy. Hunger or
the desire for food is an example of a first-order desire. A second-order
desire is a desire about a first-order desire, such as the desire to not
give into the desire for food (as someone on a diet may have). A thirdorder desire is a desire about a desire about a desire (such as a desire
to not be so strict about ones desire to stay on a diet, which itself is a
desire to abstain from indulging ones desire for food). More generally,

1 See Bahm (1959), pp. 60-61.

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we may say a third-order desire is a desire about an intentional state


about another intentional state. Intentional states include desires, fears,
hopes, expectations, likes, dislikes, loves, hatreds, etc. They are called
intentional states because they are all directed at or about something, be
it a person or object or feeling. For example, a fear of snakes is a fear of
something; a desire for chocolate is also directed at something. A desire
for chocolate can be a desire for a sensation, that of experiencing the
taste of chocolate; the desire is an intentional state but the sensation of
tasting chocolate is not, for it is not directed at or about anything but is
merely a sensation. Simply put, intentional states intend at something
(and they are appropriately grouped under the aggregate of intentional
and volitional activity). Hence, a desire to overcome ones fear of heights
would be a second-order desire; it is second-order because it has another
intentional state, in this case a fear of heights, as its object. Fourth, fifth,
and nth order desires and intentional states would continue on in like
manner (although one might raise a doubt about the existence of high
orders). Gautama, during his palace life, is portrayed as having all his
first-order desires satisfied (be they for food, drink, or other comforts).
When he left the palace, he was no longer satisfied with the satisfaction
of these desires. At this point Gautama had an unsatisfied second-order
desire. Gautama the ascetic tried to undo the pull of first-order desires
in the pursuit of satisfying this second-order desire: the desire to be
without first-order desires. This movement of concern from first-order
to second-order desires involves operating at a higher order of concern,
and can involve reflecting on first-order desires.
In Bahms view, the Buddha proclaimed a very simple but profound
truth. He states, Gotamas philosophy may be summed up in a simple,
clear and obvious principle, which immediately compels belief once it
is understood. The principle: Desire for what will not be attained ends
in frustration; therefore, to avoid frustration, avoid desiring what will
not be attained.1 Gautama the prince could not satisfy all his desires
(particularly when he encountered the inevitable realities of old age,

1 Bahm (1959), p. 15.

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sickness and death, for the desire to evade these cannot be satisfied). He
consequently suffered. Gautama the ascetic could not satisfy the secondorder desire to be without first-order desires for, as discussed, not all
first-order desires can be eliminated (e.g., hunger). And consequently
he also suffered. The Buddhas Middle Way, in Bahms view, involves
being satisfied at a higher order with unsatisfied lower-order desires.
This involves some dialectical repositioning, and warrants explaining.
An unsatisfied desire for food is a first-order desire, with a first-order
frustration due to its being unsatisfied. And if we desire that our desire
for food be satisfied that is, if we have a second-order desire seeking the
satisfaction of our first-order desire then there will be a compounding
effect in frustration (for the desire for food will be unsatisfied and the
desire to satisfy this desire will be unsatisfied). A second-order desire
that seeks the satisfaction of an unsatisfied first-order desire adds to the
pull of this desire, and thus to the frustration of it being unsatisfied.
However, if we can manage, at a second-order, to be satisfied with an
unsatisfied first-order desire, then this can work to quell the frustration of the unsatisfied first-order desire. For instance, suppose we are
hungry. If we have a second-order desire that desires the satisfaction of
our hunger, then the frustration of being hungry will grow. But if, at a
second-order, we can be satisfied with being hungry, then the frustration
of being hungry will diminish. We will still be hungry, but at this second order we will be okay with our first-order hunger. The idea is that
while first-order desires such as hunger may not be eliminable, they can
be mitigated or alleviated through our attitude towards the first-order
desire at a second or higher order. If we can find peace or satisfaction
at a higher order with unsatisfied lower-order desires, then suffering,
according to Bahms interpretation, can be eliminated.
On Bahms understanding, suffering results from unsatisfied desires,
be these first-order, second-order or nth order-desires. However, he
adds that the suffered effects of an unsatisfied desire can be mitigated
and even eliminated if at a higher-order we are okay with an unsatisfied
lower-order desire. Again, the pain of hunger will not go away merely
by being okay with being hungry at a higher-order of reflection. But

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still, something may be said to go away and, according to Bahm, this is


the suffering of which the Buddha speaks.
Cravings can be said to work conversely: they are higher-order desires
that are not okay with unsatisfied lower-order desires; to the contrary,
they desire the satisfaction of unsatisfied lower-order desires. Cravings,
thus, exacerbate unsatisfied lower-order desires and cause a suffering
that would not otherwise be present. They compound the frustration of
unsatisfied lower-order desires. Consider the example of hunger again.
A first-order hunger is not a craving (and good thing as hunger is not
an eliminable desire). A craving for food is a second-order desire that
seeks the satisfaction of a first-order hunger. More specifically, a craving for food involves trying to satisfy a self by way of satisfying a desire
for food. This is a second-order desire because it involves desiring the
satisfaction of a desire for food for the satisfaction of a self. Thus, in addition to the involvement of attachment to self, we may draw a further
distinction between cravings and wants: first-order wants are possible (as
are second-order wants, third-order, and so on), but first order cravings
are not possible. Cravings only arise with second or higher order desires.
This is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition (as not all
second or higher order states are cravings; for instance, one may want
to satisfy a want without a craving being involved). In short, cravings
involve second or higher-order desires that seek to satisfy a self by way of
satisfying first or lower-order desires. Bahm does not speak specifically
of cravings or attachment to self in his analysis of Buddhist suffering;
nevertheless, his analysis in terms of ordered desires allows us to further
characterize the difference in kind between cravings and wants.
Many first-order states are biologically ingrained and, depending on
the desire, may not be entirely eliminable (e.g., hunger). Higher-order
desires and states, though, seem less liable to being biologically ingrained
and more open to control. For instance, the first-order desire of hunger may not be eliminable, but whether we have a second-order desire
that seeks to satisfy our hunger, or whether we are unperturbed or even
satisfied at a second-order with being hungry, does seem to be more
susceptible to control and disciplining. The Buddhas Middle Way, in

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Bahms view, involves this kind of dialectical repositioning. It requires


being constantly aware of our desires first-order, second-order, and
so on and it requires being able to position our concerns at a higher
order than the unsatisfied desires and, further to this, coming to be satisfied at this higher order with unsatisfied lower-order desires. And this is
to say that it involves the diametric opposite of craving the satisfaction
of lower-order desires. In sum, if we cannot satisfy our desires then,
in Bahms view, overcoming suffering requires the considered effort of
placing our attention at a higher order and, furthermore, coming to feel
entirely satisfied at this higher order with unsatisfied lower-order states.
Maintaining this effort requires vigilance, significant self-discipline and
control.

Criticism of Bahm

There is much to commend in Bahms dialectical analysis of desires. In


particular, it allows for an analysis of cravings in terms of second or
higher-order desires. However, his description of the Buddhist understanding of suffering as simply unsatisfied desires is flawed. In this view,
overcoming the suffering of an unsatisfied desire would require either
satisfying the unsatisfied desire, or moving ones attention to a higherorder state where one does not desire the satisfaction of the unsatisfied
desire. There are difficulties here. For one, it does not distinguish among
desires. It would hold a desire for murder on par with a desire for food,
for both are desires and are prone to cause suffering if left unsatisfied. On
Bahms view, a desire to murder should not cause suffering if the desire
can be satisfied; it will only cause suffering to oneself if left unsatisfied.
Only if the desire cannot be satisfied are we required, to overcome the
suffering of this unsatisfied desire, to shift our conscious concern to a
higher-order state where we can, through discipline, come to be satisfied with this unsatisfied desire. Thus the presence of any desire, no
matter how insalubrious, need not incur suffering if we can either satisfy
it or make ourselves satisfied with its remaining unsatisfied from the

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perspective of a higher-order state. But a desire to murder or steal or


hurt, even if satisfied (or even if we are satisfied at a higher order with
its being unsatisfied), would involve suffering in the Buddhist conception if it involves attachment to self. And this is the key difficulty with
Bahms view: it does not distinguish cravings from other desires. More
specifically, it does not distinguish between desires that involve attachment to self, and that are pursued in the interests of this self, from those
that do not. In this respect, Bahm makes the same error as the ascetic by
not distinguishing between desires that are suffering-inducing (cravings)
from those that are not (wants).
A desire for the suffering of humankind to end, even though the desire
remains unfulfilled, need not incur suffering in the Buddhist sense. The
response to this unsatisfied desire should not require becoming satisfied
with its being unfulfilled because this will deter efforts to fulfill it. To be
satisfied with ones unfulfilled desire to alleviate humanitys suffering is
to be at ease with not doing anything about it; it is to quell ones desire
to end humanitys suffering. It may be in order to respond to a feeling
of hunger this way, but it is something very different to respond to ones
concerns for humanitys suffering this way. It promotes apathy, and this
is clearly contrary to the Buddhas motives and efforts. He spent the
latter forty-five years of his life trying to eradicate humanitys suffering.
The Buddha is alleged to have overcome suffering, but he was not someone who was satisfied with his unfulfilled desire to alleviate humanitys
suffering. The story of the latter part of his life gives evidence to the
contrary. The Buddha is said to have overcome suffering and craving,
which means that while his desire to alleviate humanitys suffering was
never fully satisfied, it was not for him a suffering-inducing craving.
Bahms interpretation is also at odds with the moral conduct required
in following the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path, as
will be elaborated in Chapter Seven, requires that certain moral precepts
be followed in order that freedom from suffering be realized. Not killing, stealing and hurting fall under these precepts (under what is called
Right Action and Right Livelihood). But Bahms interpretation gives
license to do any of these things without causing oneself any suffering.

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As long as the desire is satisfied (i.e., as long as one is successful in stealing and murdering), or as long as one is satisfied at a higher order with
the desire being unsatisfied, then suffering does not result. But stealing
and killing are clearly in conflict with following the Noble Eightfold
Path. Satisfying the desire to steal does not mean that one has escaped
the suffering associated with the desire. In fact, as long as the desire to
steal is pursued in the interests of satisfying ones self, as it generally is, it
will incur suffering in the Buddhist conception even if it is satisfied. The
Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are directed, and provide
precepts and steps, towards overcoming suffering. Bahms reading admits
stark violations of these precepts and this raises a significant difficulty
with its being an adequate interpretation and analysis of the Buddhist
conception of suffering.
Bahms reading of suffering is in line with the understanding of suffering in the second grouping of the First Noble Truth (which links
suffering to unsatisfied desire) but with some added dialectical complexity. The ascetic who tries to become indifferent to the pull of his desires
fits Bahms picture of what it is to overcome suffering. But Bahms view
neglects the understanding of suffering that arises in the third grouping
of the First Noble Truth (which links suffering to the aggregates and
attachment to self ). Notwithstanding, Bahms discrimination of levels of
desire does allow us to better elaborate and analyse craving, and so make
better sense of the concept of Buddhist suffering and the importance
of higher-order awareness in overcoming suffering. Buddhist suffering
arises with craving, and this involves a second or higher-order desire that
seeks to satisfy a first or lower-order desire in order to satisfy a sense of
self.
We will consider two more related points before proceeding to the
next section. One, a higher-order state that is satisfied with an unsatisfied lower-order state can alleviate much of the unsatisfactoriness of this
lower-order state. But there is a presumption here, and that is that we
are more concerned with the higher-order state than the lower-order
state. That is, one may have both a lower-order state of hunger and a
higher-order state that is unbothered by the hunger. The higher-order

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state offers alleviation only if it holds sway over ones attention. If one is
still more moved by the lower-order hunger, one will still be bothered
by the hunger. One way to describe this is to say that ones feeling of
self-concern must not rest heavily with the lower-order hunger if the
higher-order state is to have an alleviating effect. Simply having an
appropriate higher-order state is not sufficient; one must be able to direct
and focus ones attention and concern to this higher-order state and away
from the unsatisfied lower-order state, and this requires mental discipline
and concentration. The methods of mindfulness and meditation are, at
least partially, directed at achieving this level of remove to a higher-order
state from where lower-order states can be observed with dispassion;
Chapter Seven will offer more detail on Buddhist mindfulness.
And two, since suffering is identified with having cravings, and cravings involve attachment to self and the capacity to have higher-order
states, it follows that creatures that do not have a sense of self (as being
independent of the ever-changing aggregates), or that cannot experience
higher-order states, cannot experience suffering in the Buddhist sense of
the term. They will still experience pain, but not suffer in the Buddhas
sense. It is interesting to note that Peter Singer uses the capacity for
experiencing self hood as a guide in determining a creatures capacity for
suffering. A fish, for example, can feel pain insofar as it has a nervous
system that enables feeling it but as long as it lacks a sense of self, it lacks
a point of reference from which this pain can be reflected upon; it lacks
a basis for feeling the pain as painful to it (similar to how I can experience pain as painful to me). For this fish, the feeling may just be a brute,
painful sensation and no more. If it is lacking a sense of self with which
it may associate its sensation of pain then, argues Singer, it is deserving
of less (but not zero) moral consideration (for the implication is that its
suffering is not as weighty without its being felt to bear on a self ).1 In
some respects, a similar point is made here: the Buddhist conception of
suffering is a primarily human affair (but presumably not an exclusively
human affair, although it is unclear to what extent other animals can

1 Singer (1993), Chapters Four and Five.

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have an attachment to self in their desires, or experience higher-order


states which are necessary for having cravings).

Self and Suffering

We may wonder why the attachment to a sense of self in a desire is held


to incur suffering in the Buddhist conception, even when the desire in
question is satisfied. One answer to this is that, in the Buddhist view,
the self to which we are attached does not exist, and consequently any
desire that involves this attachment can never really be satisfied. Such
a desire has been called a craving. And a craving that seeks to satisfy a
self cannot be satisfied given that the self it seeks to satisfy does not exist
(see Chapter Eight for further discussion of the doctrine of No Self ).
This can be explained better by again distinguishing between orders
of desires. A craving involves a higher-order desire that seeks to satisfy
a lower-order desire in order to satisfy a self. For instance, a craving
for food involves a desire to satisfy a self through satisfying a desire for
food. While the lower-order desire (for food) is satisfiable, the craving
is not. The higher-order desire cannot be satisfied if there is no such self
(as something existing apart from the ever-changing aggregates) to be
satisfied. In short, it would seem that no cravings are satisfiable, and so
they cannot but be suffering-inducing. Thus, overcoming the suffering
associated with a craving must involve, not satisfying, but overcoming
the craving. As discussed, overcoming suffering in the Buddhist conception cannot undo or eliminate pain (or sickness, aging, etc.). But it can,
allegedly, overcome the anxieties and distresses associated with the pain
being my pain. Craving to be without pain that is, desiring to satisfy a
self by satisfying the desire to be without pain adds a dimension to the
experience of pain. Indeed, it should seem to exacerbate the experience
of pain (for I am concerned not merely with the feeling of pain, but with
its feeling to me). Insofar as cravings can be overcome, then this added
dimension and exacerbation can be removed. My pain is able to be
eliminated, not by eliminating the pain per se, but through eliminating

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the my, that is, through eliminating the attachment to self in the pain.
As discussed in the previous chapter, the pervasiveness of suffering
in the Buddhist conception implies that we must be able to suffer even
when we believe or feel ourselves to not be suffering (for if not, we could
easily judge that suffering is not pervasive for there are patently many
moments, at least for many of us, during which we do not feel ourselves
to be suffering). The pervasiveness of suffering means that suffering can
be experienced without its being recognized. In this respect, Buddhist
suffering is unlike a belly-ache which is difficult to overlook when one
is experiencing it. And so suffering in the Buddhist sense may only be
clearly recognized upon its alleviation (perhaps analogous, if only in this
respect, to a muscle knot that may only be clearly noticed when it is
unknotted). This means that we may not fully, or even adequately, realize the suffering of attachment to self until it is overcome. And since
overcoming suffering is the motivation for Buddhist practice, a difficulty with recognizing our suffering presents a challenge to motivating
Buddhist practice.
We will end this chapter with a further consideration about the end
of suffering and its role as the motivation for pursuing the Buddhist
path. As described, ending suffering in the Buddhist conception involves
overcoming craving and attachment to self. This raises the question of
the viability of a self-interested motivation. Consider that if suffering in
the Buddhist conception was correctly described by the examples of the
first grouping in the First Noble Truth, then a self-interested motivation
for taking on Buddhist practice would be clear (for we would be gaining
freedom from pain, sorrow, old age, sickness, and death). Likewise, if
suffering in the Buddhist conception was correctly diagnosed as simply
involving the frustration of unsatisfied desires, then again there would be
a clear self-serving benefit for taking on Buddhist practice (for we would
gain from being without the frustration of unsatisfied desires). But if the
end of suffering is construed in terms of liberation from attachment to
self then this presents a difficulty with having a self-interested motivation in overcoming suffering. It would seem that, at some point on the
path to freedom from suffering, the self-interested motive or reason must

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be dropped (either that or the path will not meet with success). A selfinterested motivation must come to be recognized as itself suffered and
to be overcome. But if we know, ahead of time, that a self-interested
motivation must eventually be dropped, we might wonder why we
should be motivated even to begin pursuing the Buddhist path. And we
might wonder how the end of suffering can even be correctly conceived
of as a goal if it is not to be a goal reached by my self or for my self
(for associating goals with our future selves is part of how we generally
understand goals). Understanding suffering in terms of the third grouping, as opposed to the first two groupings, allows us to conceive of why
suffering is held to be pervasive and eliminable, and at first sight these
two points do seem to provide a good reason for taking up the Buddhist
path (i.e., the elimination of a pervasive suffering). However, if the end
of suffering involves overcoming attachment to self, then a personal and
self-interested motivation, to the extent that this involves attachment
to self or a craving for enlightenment, becomes an obstacle. The first
two groupings in the First Noble Truth present understandings of suffering that are not eliminable. This raises a problem of motivation for
taking up Buddhist practice (for such practice cannot eliminate these
sufferings). But the third grouping raises a different problem for motivation: a self-interested motivation (in the form of a craving) will be an
obstacle to what Buddhist practice aims to achieve. Perhaps a motivation for Buddhist practice need not be a self-interested motivation. In
Chapter Fourteen, on Mahayana Buddhism, we will discuss the idea that
if the end of suffering is to be achieved, it must come to be pursued for
the benefit of all, with an altruistic or genuinely compassionate motivation, rather than for oneself. The issue of the end of suffering and the
motivation this provides will also be revisited in the next chapter in its
discussion of Nirvana.

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VI
The Third Noble Truth:
Nirvana, the Cessation of
Suffering
Introduction

A s discusse d, t h e Bu ddh as First Preaching upon enlightenment


involved what are commonly called the Four Noble Truths. These
are the signature truths of the Buddha, the Noble or Enlightened One.
The Buddha is proclaiming truths, but the primary intent is not to offer
a true description of reality but rather an account of how to overcome
a predicament in the human condition. In speaking of the Four Noble
Truths as truths, the Buddha is not trying to be a metaphysician or a
scientist. The Buddhas agenda is a practical one. The Four Noble Truths
have been described as involving a diagnosis that tells us that there is a
problem or malady (pervasive suffering), describes its causes (cravings
involving an attachment to self ), prescribes a cure (to eliminate suffering
we must eliminate these cravings), and offers a specific means for realizing and practising this cure (the Noble Eightfold Path). Buddhaghosa, an
84

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important Theravadin1 commentator from the 5th Century (and whose


name translates as voice of the Buddha in Pali), states: The truth of
suffering is like a disease, the truth of origin is like the cause of the disease, the truth of cessation is like the cure of the disease, and the truth of
the path is like the medicine.2 The Buddha is regarded more as a physician than a metaphysician, but his concerns with suffering are not quite
the same as is the ordinary physicians (indeed, from the discussion of the
previous two chapters, it should be evident that the Buddhist conception
of suffering differs substantially from the ordinary physicians).
As described in the previous chapter, suffering results from cravings.
These cravings are second or higher-order desires; they are desires about
desires that seek to satisfy first or lower-order desires, not just for their
own sake, but in order to satisfy a self. And in so doing these cravings
further entrench attachment to the sense of being a self that exists separately from the five aggregates. The Buddha, as seen in Chapter Four and
as we will see again in Chapter Eight, argues that no such entity exists;
and that all that can be said to exist (with respect to our selves) is what
can be experienced or encountered in the five ever-changing aggregates.
From the perspective of Western religious traditions, this may be
perplexing: what, it may be wondered, is the merit of a religious practice
if it does not benefit a self (be it our own self or other selves)? There can
be no personal salvation, or eternal life for a soul, or heaven it seems,
if there is no self in the form of an enduring independent entity that
can reap these rewards. But with Buddhism, there is a set of beliefs and
practices that are held to be of spiritual significance, and yet this path
is godless, soulless, and without benefit to a substantial self. Buddhism
is often regarded as polytheistic, but as with Jainism, appeal to gods or
deities is not integral for following the Buddhist path; the end of suffering does not depend on a god or gods as salvation may in other religious
traditions. Indeed, attaining enlightenment and the end of suffering

1 Theravada is the oldest school of Buddhism. It declined in India, but is the


main religion today in several South-East Asian countries.
2
Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa. XVI 87.11., p. 520.

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involves the very realization that there is no substantive self. As noted, the
First Noble Truth speaks of the nature of suffering, and the Second of its
cause, which is craving. The Third Noble Truth speaks of the cessation
of suffering, and thus of the overcoming of attachment to self. This is the
realization of Nirvana, and this will be the focus of this chapter.

Samsara

Samsara is a term used to signify the unenlightened existence in


which we that is, the unenlightened amongst us find ourselves. It
is described in terms opposite to Nirvana. It is described as the cycle
of birth and rebirth, and as being permeated by suffering, cravings for
permanence, sensation, and self. In the Dhammapada, it is described as
involving impermanence, suffering and illusion: All is transient.
All is sorrow. All is unreal.1
Nirvana, the extinguishing of suffering, is the release from Samsara or
Samsaric existence. If Samsara is our suffered earthly existence, it might
seem that Nirvana should be conceived of as an unearthly or otherworldly existence. That is, the contrary terms in which Samsara and
Nirvana are portrayed may convey that Nirvana is a heavenly world or
transcendent realm. However, this view of Nirvana conflicts with the
Buddhist conception of suffering. If suffering is construed in terms of the
first grouping of the First Noble Truth that is, as involving pain, sickness, aging and death then liberation from suffering should then involve
reaching a heavenly or transcendent existence marked by immortality
and freedom from physical discomfort and degeneration. But this understanding of suffering has been shown to not be suffering in the Buddhist
sense, and thus Nirvana the extinguishing of suffering is not to be
understood in these terms either. Likewise, if suffering is understood in
terms of the second grouping of the First Noble Truth, then realizing
Nirvana would again involve becoming something more than human
1
Dhammapada, Ch. 20, Sections 277-79.

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Wheel of Becoming

(for it would involve overcoming the desires of human embodiment).


The Buddhas life is instructive for a correct understanding of suffering:
he is alleged to have overcome suffering, but he did not overcome sickness, aging, death, or all desires, and so these cannot be the suffering to
be overcome in Buddhism. The understanding of suffering as per the
third grouping of the First Noble Truth that is, as involving craving
and attachment to self has implications for understanding Samsara and
Nirvana: namely, Samsara involves craving and attachment to self and
Nirvana a release from these.
Samsara is popularly characterized by what is called the Wheel of
Becoming.1 Along the outer edge of this wheel are twelve points depicting characteristics of suffering and human existence. These include

1 Also called the Wheel of Life.

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ignorance, volition, consciousness, name and form, sensory modalities,


physical contact, feeling, thirst, grasping, becoming, birth, and aging and
death. The twelve elements of the wheel are taken to characterize our
unenlightened existence, and include elements from each of the three
groupings of suffering from the First Noble Truth. To be in Samsara is to
be caught in the cycle of these elements; and to be released from Samsara
to Nirvana is to escape attachment to these elements and the cycle of
this wheel. Escaping Samsara requires stopping the underlying forces
that keep this wheel in motion. These forces are ignorance, grasping
and aversion or hatred. These are regarded as the Three Root Evils or
Poisons. These forces arise within the aggregate of intentional and volitional activity and involve reactions to that which is perceived as pleasing
(through grasping) and displeasing (through aversion and hatred). That
which is perceived as neutral, as neither pleasing nor displeasing, can
result in confusion as no clear reaction may present itself. These three
forces are pictured as lying in the interior core of the wheel. These are
called root evils because they propagate suffering and maintain the cycle
of suffering. They are aspects of our attachment to self. Overcoming
suffering, and thus stopping the motion of this wheel, requires counteracting the three root forces of ignorance, grasping and aversion or
hatred with their opposites: wisdom, generosity and compassion. This is
implemented through the practices of the Noble Eightfold Path (which
will be described in the next chapter). There is thus a causal understanding of suffering displayed in the Wheel of Becoming. The twelve
elements of the wheel causally affect each other and the three root forces
cause the wheel to turn and cause the unenlightened to be bound to its
motion and bound within its elements. A similar causal understanding is,
of course, displayed in the Four Noble Truths (i.e., suffering is described
as caused, and the elimination of suffering is described as involving the
elimination of its causes). The understanding of causal interconnectivity
is further refined in the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination
and this will be discussed in Chapter Ten.

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Understanding and Describing Nirvana

The Third Noble Truth asserts that suffering can be eliminated by


eliminating its causes, namely cravings. The elimination of suffering,
Nirvana, translates as extinguished or extinguishing, as in
putting out a flame. Referring to the extinguishing of craving and the
realization of no self, Nirvana is sometimes construed as involving the
annihilation of self. But this is not accurate. The self is not an entity to
be extinguished. Instead, it is overcoming attachment to this illusory self
that is required. This involves realizing that there is no self, in the sense
of an entity existing independently of the aggregates, to begin with. If
we are to speak of annihilation at all, it is the annihilation of the fiction
or delusion of self, and of the attachment to this fiction.
As noted, Nirvana is not a transcendent place or realm. It is not the
Buddhist word for god or heaven. And there is no absolute or monistic
reality, such as Atman or Brahman, which is realized with Nirvana. The
realization of Brahman is described as involving a realization of the True
Self (Atman). Nirvana, in contrast, involves the realization that there
is no self in any substantive sense. This is not to deny the utility of the
concept of a self, for this allows us to organize thoughts, memories, etc.,
around the notion of a central agent. Rather, it is to assert that attachment to self extends beyond these and other uses.
This attachment to self is displayed in how we think and speak about
experiences, including Nirvana. Consider the question: if there is no self
who exists apart from the aggregates, then who experiences the aggregates? And who experiences Nirvana? It seems that suffering must be felt
by a self, and so should the experience of the cessation of suffering. If
there is suffering, there must be a sufferer. For Descartes, this reasoning
was certain. If there is thinking, doubting, perceiving, as there assuredly
are, then, he concluded, there must exist a self or soul who is doing the
thinking, doubting and perceiving. Descartes famously concluded cogito
ergo sum: thinking implies existence (or, as more commonly translated,
I think therefore I am). Descartes reasoned that, even if he was incorrect and deceived about the content of his perceptions and thoughts,

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he must exist to have these deceived perceptions and thoughts; every


perception veridical or not requires a perceiver, and every thought
necessitates a thinker. As long as I am currently perceiving or thinking,
for that time I can be certain that I exist.1 Thus, for Descartes, knowledge of the existence of self is indubitable.
Note that the self, on this reasoning, must exist independently of the
aggregates. This self is independent of sensations, perceptions, thoughts,
and consciousness for it is that thing which has sensations, perceptions,
thoughts, and is conscious. It is the experiencer of the aggregates, and so
the self must exist independently of the aggregates. It is, for Descartes,
the thinking thing and exists independently of the thoughts it thinks.
According to Descartes, the self must also not be the body for we can,
with some imaginative work, entertain doubts about the existence of
the body, but not the self (i.e., my awareness of my body relies on sensations and perceptions and I may be deceived about these, perhaps by an
evil demon, but again, according to Descartes I cannot be deceived by
anyone about my own existence for I must exist to be deceived). The
self, on this Cartesian view, exists necessarily and independently of the
aggregates. Critics, however, objected that it does not follow from the
existence of thoughts to the existence of a thinker; it might be that there
are just the thoughts. Likewise with perceptions, beliefs, doubts, hopes,
etc. We saw a similar response expressed by Hume in Chapter Four. The
Buddha, as also discussed in Chapter Four, held a comparable view two
millennia earlier. According to the Buddha, the existence of this self is
not only dubitable, it is denied. In marked contrast to Descartes famous
conclusion, the Buddha asserted: action exists, but no doer.2
It does seem that thinking requires a thinker, perceiving a perceiver,
suffering a sufferer, and the cessation of suffering one for whom suffering
has ceased. This is certainly in line with how we speak. It is a feature
of our grammar that every predicate requires a subject for a predicate is

1 See Meditations One and Two in Descartes (1993).


2 As quoted in Collins (1982), p. 105. Collins also states here: The Sanskrit
form also implies a deed needs a doer, and this is contested directly by the
Buddha.

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what is asserted of a subject. Our grammar (and this applies in English


as well as in Sanskrit) implies that there cannot be a predicate, such
as suffering, without a subject the sufferer. However, to say what is
grammatically necessary must be necessary in actuality is to say what
is necessary of a linguistic description of the world must be necessary
of the world. This is fallacious (we may describe this as the fallacy of
moving from de dicto necessity to de re necessity).1 Descartes inference
was, arguably, not a logical necessity but a grammatical one (and given
the close connection between rules of grammar and the way we think,
his inference was not without cause). Once again, this inference from
predicate to subject from action to doer is explicitly denied by the
Buddha. It is noteworthy that the First Noble Truth presents the truth
of suffering as simply: there is suffering. It speaks to the predicate but
does not overtly ascribe a subject; it does not say we all suffer, or all
who are unenlightened suffer. We might think that if there is suffering,
then there must be someone who is undergoing the suffering (and that
this someone must exist independently of the suffering he experiences,
and independently of other experiences). But the First Noble Truth is
careful not to assert the truth of suffering in these terms, since it is the
self or specifically, attachment to self as present in cravings that is at
the root of suffering in the Buddhist conception.
The use of indexical words such as I and me, or proper names, can
suggest the existence of selves (for the grammatical role of such terms
is to refer, and so it can seem that there must exist a referent to whom
they refer). However, in the Buddhist view, a grammatical role should
not be confused for existence. The indexical I is used in assertions that
describe ones self (e.g., I am hungry or I am going out); and phrases
such as my body, my pain and my idea function, respectively, to
express the possession of a body by a self, the feeling of a pain by a self,
and authorship of an idea by a self. This is why, in the third grouping of

1 It is a de dicto necessity that anyone who is your sister is your sibling; this
merely follows from the words. But (its sometimes argued) the fact that 7
+ 5 = 12 is not merely a matter of words: it would be necessarily true (de re)
even if there were no words to talk about it.

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the First Noble Truth, suffering is summed up in terms of the aggregates


of attachment: we attach a notion of I or self to the aggregates, as the
possessor and experiencer of the aggregates, while presuming the I or
self nevertheless exists independently of the aggregates. These are linguistic usages that allow us to express ourselves to others as well as reflect
on our own states. However, in the Buddhist view, these useful ways of
speaking should not be taken to refer to a separate and underlying self.
Again, the grammar of our speech, and the grammar that underlies our
linguistic thinking, may posit or presume a grammatical subject, but
the thinking is that this should not be taken to imply the existence of
a metaphysical subject. The main difficulty, from the Buddhist point of
view, is that even if we have not made this implication explicitly, our
attachments as betrayed in our desires and hopes and fears suggest we
have done so implicitly.
As noted, while we may associate an experience with an experiencer,
or an action with a doer, this need not be taken to mean that there is a
self who is doing the experiencing and acting. Consider the following:
we may say a pet goldfish is hungry, or that it is swimming in circles,
but these associations of a subject with a predicate need not imply that
the goldfish has a self. Similarly, we can give the goldfish a name, and
while the name refers to the goldfish, it need not be taken to refer to the
goldfishs self. Likewise, a dog might respond to a name, but that does
not mean that the dog has a sense of self, in the sense of being something
that exists separately from its ever-changing psychophysical aggregates,
and that this self is what is responding upon being called. Again, this is
not to say that the concept of self is without use or value, or that it should
be abandoned. My experiences, memories and more are associated with
and organized around a self-concept. My thoughts of others and interactions with them, and theirs with me, also deal with this self-concept. All
this is useful and presumably necessary for living in the world, for having
dealings with others and making sense of ourselves. But in the Buddhist
view, this does not imply the existence of a self as an entity that exists
separately from the collection of psychophysical states or aggregates of
which we are comprised.

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To return to the discussion of Nirvana, it is noteworthy that Nirvana


is not usually described in positive terms. If it is described at all, it is usually described negatively (i.e., it is described in terms of what it is not, or
by what it lacks). A negative description is still a description; it still conveys information, just as a positive description. For instance, if I say that
I am not sleepy then this says something about me. Though it may not
say as much, or have as much determinate content, as a positive description of my state, such as saying that I am feeling alert. Another example:
directions which tell me not to head West tell me something, but not as
much as a positive description of which way I should go (i.e., it does not
specifically tell me to head North or South or East, and so may leave me
standing where I am, but all the same, I have gained some information).
A negative description does provide some information or content; an
indeterminate description is not the same as no description. However,
negative descriptions convey without pinning down. They leave us, not
with nothing, but also without a clear picture of Nirvana. For instance,
saying Nirvana is without suffering tells us something important, something that may motivate its pursuit, but can also leave us without a clear
appreciation of what the experience of Nirvana is like.
Negative descriptions are consistent with the Buddhist emphasis on
detachment, and undoing craving, by directing our minds to reject
associations of qualities with Nirvana. Hence, negative descriptions may
be viewed as rejecting the attachments that may come with positive
descriptions of Nirvana. Still, defining Nirvana in negative terms as the
extinguishing of suffering does provide an outcome which may be pursued with craving and attachment. But note that a craving for Nirvana
would be more likely with the portrayals of suffering in the first and
second groupings in the First Noble Truth than with the third: an end
to pain, sickness, old age, death and frustrated desires provides a greater
basis for craving than does overcoming attachment to self. As discussed
in the previous chapter, craving Nirvana is an obstacle to its realization
(for the cessation of suffering requires the cessation of self-attachment
and craving). Negative descriptions, because they do not pin down a
determinate content, may be less susceptible to attachment and craving

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than positive descriptions, and thus provide less of a hindrance to the


realization of Nirvana while still offering some useful description. This
is one reason for using negative descriptions in speaking of Nirvana.
The Vinaya Pitaka describes Nirvana as difficult to understand
beyond abstract reasoning, subtle 1 Very subtle, perhaps, for Nirvana
is often not described at all: the Buddha is renowned for remaining silent
on such matters. Gethin explains this silence: ultimately whatever
one says will be misleading; the last resort must be the silence of the
Aryas, the silence of the ones who have directly known the ultimate
truth, for ultimately in such matters syllables, words, and concepts are of
no use.2 Nevertheless, Nirvana is still described, and again, this usually
involves negative terms and descriptions. The following passage is a key
example of such a negative description, and the passage itself is described
as an inspired utterance:
There is, monks, a domain where there is no earth, no water, no
fire, no wind, no sphere of infinite space, no sphere of nothingness, no sphere of infinite consciousness, no sphere of neither
awareness nor non-awareness; there is not this world, there is not
another world, there is no sun or moon. I do not call this coming
or going, nor standing nor dying, nor being reborn; it is without
support, without occurrence, without object. Just this is the end of
suffering.3
Notice, first, that this inspired utterance describes using only negative
terms. Notice, second, that much of the description is contradictory.
Nirvana is described as not something (i.e., it is not composed of what
were presumed to be the basic elements of earth, water, fire or wind),
but also not nothing (no sphere of nothingness). We are told that there
is no awareness, but also no non-awareness. It is neither coming nor
1
Vinaya Pitaka I 4, as quoted in Harvey (1990), p. 62.
2 Gethin (1998), p. 79.
3
Udana 80, as quoted in Gethin (1998), pp. 76-77; and also in Williams
(2000), pp. 49-50.

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going. It is neither standing and living, nor dying. What then is it? The
use of not only negative descriptions but contradictory terms conveys
that there is no content positive or negative, affirming or nihilistic
that we can assert of Nirvana. Contradictions cannot be true, and thus
the use of contradictory descriptions repudiates any informational
content as ascribable to Nirvana. Contradictory descriptions convey
that Nirvana is beyond conception, for it seems we cannot conceive of
how a contradiction can be true or make sense. The indescribability
of Nirvana in linguistic terms, and its incomprehensibility through
concepts, is thus indirectly conveyed with the use of contradictory
descriptions. Using negative descriptions can yield some informational
content, without pinning down a determinate content to Nirvana. But
using contradictory negative descriptions goes further for it suggests no
content determinate or indeterminate can be accurately associated
with Nirvana. Contradictory descriptions do not directly yield any
informational content. Of course, contradictory descriptions may also be
interpreted differently: not as suggesting that Nirvana is indescribable,
but rather that it is impossible. However, insofar as realizing Nirvana is
possible, as the Third Noble Truth asserts, then the appropriate way of
reading these contradictory descriptions is that they are an indirect way of
saying that Nirvana is ultimately indescribable. Merely saying Nirvana
is indescribable would be a self-refuting description. Employing
contradictory negative descriptions conveys this indescribability and
inconceivability emphatically, but without saying specifically of Nirvana
that it is indescribable. Nirvana, insofar as it is realizable, is clearly unlike
other experiences that can be described and conceived.
Moreover, this very consideration that Nirvana is beyond linguistic
description and conception conveys something more about what is
needed to realize an end to suffering. To explain, in the above inspired
utterance, Nirvana is negatively described as not being constituted of
the basic elements of earth, water, fire or wind but also described as not
being nothing. Nirvana is neither of the self (since it involves overcoming attachment to self ) nor of the world (as these negative descriptions
convey). These and other negative descriptions convey that Nirvana is

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neither a something nor a nothing. But these distinctions, between is


and is not, or existence and non-existence, are basic distinctions of dualistic thought. Indeed, any description of Nirvana, positive or negative,
must involve asserting what Nirvana is or is not and thus must employ a
dualistic framework. The categories and distinctions denied of Nirvana
in the inspired utterance convey that Nirvana is not concrete, not
infinite, not of awareness, not of non-awareness, not of this world, not of
another world, not coming, not going, not occurring, not standing, not
living, not being born, and not dying. The conclusion to draw from all
this is not that Nirvana is nothing (i.e., that a nihilistic interpretation is
appropriate), for this too is specifically denied in the above utterance.
Rather, the conclusion to draw is that the basic categories of dualistic conception do not apply to Nirvana. This suggests that realizing
Nirvana again, assuming that it is realizable, as the Third Noble Truth
asserts cannot be achieved solely through a dualistic perspective and
awareness. That is, the negation of these dualistic categories suggests,
elliptically, that realizing Nirvana must involve a release from dualistic
thinking.
In sum, the contradictory negative descriptions convey, not just that
Nirvana is beyond accurate linguistic conception, but also that a proper
appreciation of Nirvana must involve a role for non-dualistic awareness
or experience (for the contradictoriness of the negative descriptions
implies a rejection of basic dualistic categories as being appropriate to
the understanding and realization of Nirvana). To be sure, saying that
experiencing Nirvana involves overcoming dualistic attachment and
awareness is saying something about Nirvana (and saying it dualistically
at that). But this description is limited as it does not effectively communicate the nature of the experience of non-dualism convey what it
is like from a first-person perspective to an understanding and perspective that is dualistic. Issues involving the indescribability of Nirvana, and
its connection to non-dualism, will be revisited in Chapter Thirteen.

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VII
The Fourth Noble Truth:
Walking the Noble
Eightfold Path

Introduction

Soon a f t e r le av i ng h is palace, Gautama encountered yogis from


whom he learned meditation techniques. He first encountered Alara
Kalama who taught Gautama how to enter into the sphere of nothingness. Harvey describes this as a mystical trance attained by yogic
concentration, in which the mind goes beyond any apparent object and
dwells on the thought of nothingness.1 Gautama was a quick study,
but found this state insufficient for overcoming suffering. As Harvey
describes, Gautama felt that, while he had attained a refined inner calmness, he had not yet attained enlightenment and the end of suffering.2

1 Harvey (1990), p. 18.


2 Harvey (1990), p. 18.

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The sphere of nothingness was thus not the enlightenment he sought.


Next, Gautama encountered Uddaka Ramaputra who taught him how
to enter into a state or trance described as the sphere of neither cognition nor non-cognition. Harvey adds: This went beyond the previous
state to a level of mental stilling where consciousness is so attenuated as
to hardly exist. In response, Uddaka acknowledged him as able to be his
own teacher, for only his dead father had previously attained this state.
Again Gotama passed up a chance of leadership and influence on the
grounds that he had not yet reached his goal.1 This story was recounted
in Chapter Two. These encounters are mentioned here again because they
help to convey how Nirvana the end of suffering that Gautama was
seeking is not to be conceived. Nirvana is not an awareness of nothingness or nihilism (for Gautama allegedly attained such a state of mind soon
after leaving his palace, with Alara Kalama, but was not satisfied for he
did not find this conducive to ending suffering). The sphere of neither
cognition nor non-cognition seems better, for it seems to be a state that
is non-dualistic. That Gautama turns away from this also indicates that
he is not interested in a transient state of mind; overcoming suffering is
not simply a matter of experiencing non-dualism. While an experience
of non-dualism may be a necessary aspect of the realization of Nirvana,
as the inspired utterance discussed in the previous chapter suggests, the
encounter with Uddaka Ramaputra and the meditational state he learned
from him suggests it is not sufficient.
As described in Chapter Two, Gautama was not interested in merely
the comfortable abidings of these meditational states. He was after a
more substantial and lasting change. Gautama realized that his desires
and attachments could remain unabated after these meditational states
ended. These desires and attachments needed more attention, and for
this discipline was required. The ascetic path, to which he turned next,
certainly involved a heavy dose of discipline. But this path too was
ultimately found wanting: as described in Chapters Two and Three,
the discipline practices were, among other things, too extreme in their
asceticism; too focussed on bodily discipline; and while other desires

1 Harvey (1990), p. 18.

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and attachments were being conditioned, attachment to self remained


entrenched through the ascetic practice. He left behind this ascetic
path, but the importance of discipline on the path to enlightenment
remained. What was needed, he realized, was a better understanding
of the kinds of disciplines needed on the path to enlightenment. This
understanding involves what is called the Buddhas Middle Way, and
the necessary steps and disciplining measures for following this Way are
presented in the Noble Eightfold Path. The Fourth Noble Truth asserts
that the way to Nirvana, the cessation of suffering, lies in successfully
treading the Noble Eightfold Path. This path and its steps are the focus
of this chapter.
The Noble Eightfold Path, as compared to its destination Nirvana
is described in clear, concrete terms.1 This is interesting, for it conveys
that while the path may be clearly understood, the end to which the path
is directed is less open to clear presentation. It seems that the path to the
end of suffering is to be followed without a clear picture in mind of its
destination, Nirvana.

The Noble Eightfold Path

The path to Nirvana involves following the Noble Eightfold Path. This
is the path of the noble or enlightened one, i.e., the Buddha. The eight
elements of this path are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech,
Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness
and Right Concentration. According to a traditional demarcation, the
Eightfold Path can be divided into three categories: Right View and
Right Intention fall under the general category of Wisdom (prajna).
Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood fall under the general
category of Moral Conduct (shila). Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,
and Right Concentration fall under Mental Discipline or Meditation
(samadhi/bhavana).

1 As Harvey relates: In general, Buddhism sees it as more appropriate to


describe this Path than to try and precisely describe its goal. Harvey (1990),
p. 63.

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The objective of this path is the end of suffering. Since suffering


involves attachment to self, the objective of the Noble Eightfold path
thus involves overcoming attachment to self. Overcoming attachment to
anything involves discipline. For instance, a child attached to a favourite toy may grudgingly acquiesce to a request to give it up. But the
child will likely not overcome his attachment by simply making the
decision to give away the toy. To overcome his attachment, the child
must deal with his desires and cravings for the toy. This requires discipline. The same is true for attachment to self, except much more so.
Attachment to self manifests in our beliefs and desires, hopes and fears,
likes and dislikes, affections and aversions, loves and hatreds (it manifests with the aggregates, and once again this is why attachment to the
aggregates is summed up as the source of suffering in the First Noble
Truth). To remove attachment to self thus requires a wholesale change
in our natures. For this, much discipline is needed. The Noble Eightfold
Path, presented and elaborated below, speaks to the different elements
of the discipline required. The steps in the Noble Eightfold path are
presented as separate steps but, as will be noted, they are not exclusive;
there is overlap between various steps on the path, as well as between the
groupings. The steps in the Noble Eightfold Path are not to be pursued
successively, but more or less collectively. But, having said this, there is
still some semblance of succession, and some measure of dependence,
among some steps.
1. Right View
Having Right Views involves understanding and accepting the Buddhas
teachings, the Dharma. This includes seeing the truth of the Four
Noble Truths and the doctrines of the Buddha. It involves believing
what is true, and not believing what is false, particularly as this concerns knowledge of what is necessary for overcoming suffering. This
includes knowledge of the nature of suffering, and the nature of ones
attachment to self. Right View also involves not craving right views or
true beliefs, for knowledge, as with anything, can become an object of
craving and selfish pursuit. The gaining of Right Views without craving

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or attachment to self requires discipline, for not only is one pressed to


correctly understand, but to not be desirous for understanding or knowledge, or to pursue understanding in a way that entrenches attachment
to self (as through feelings of pride, or the prestige that may be gained
through intellectual accomplishment). The admonition here involves
not being greedy for Right Views.
Right Views about the Noble Truths and doctrines of the Buddha
involve seeing how they apply to oneself. This involves seeing the sources
of attachment in oneself. Knowing oneself, and not being deluded about
ones motives and desires, requires being sincere with oneself. In this
respect, Right Views connects to Right Mindfulness, which is described
below. Coming to the Right Views about the teachings of the Buddha
and how they apply to oneself requires that one carefully observe ones
motives, desires and how one is moved to act.
Obtaining Right View involves a certain amount of intellectual
attainment (for a correct understanding of the Noble Truths, and the
teachings of the Buddha in general, involves not simply coming to
accept their truth, but coming to understand why they are true). Having
said this, it is not asserted that great intelligence or cleverness is needed
for obtaining Right Views. Coming to an understanding of what is true
involves intelligence, but in addition to this, Right View stresses the
discipline needed to approach knowledge with the right attitude and
without attachment, and sincerity so that one does not mislead oneself.
Discipline, as we will see, is an important element of every step on the
Noble Eightfold Path.
2. Right Intention
Having Right Intentions involves being free of selfishness, possessiveness
and acquisitiveness. It involves, as one might expect, acting with what
are considered to be wholesome intentions. Examples of Right Intention
include not acting bravely for reason of craving a reward, or being kind
for reason of fostering a good public image. Right Intentions, particularly in examples such as these, involve a moral aspect. The Buddhist is
charged not only to act appropriately but also to have the morally right

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intentions in acting appropriately. In this respect, while it is customarily


placed in the category of Wisdom, Right Intention also pertains to the
category of Moral Conduct.
Right Intention, along with Right View, falls under the category
of Wisdom in the Noble Eightfold Path. Accordingly, having Right
Intentions should further wisdom, and be a mark of the wise. To this
end, having Right Intentions involves having the right reasons or
motives for ones actions. Having the right reasons for actions, or doing
things with proper motives, requires knowing what the right reasons
are, and knowing ones motives. Knowing ones motives, recognizing
proper from improper motives, and amending ones motives as need be
involves wisdom. Having Right Intentions certainly involves not having
wrong or corrupt or self-focussed intentions, and this requires mastery
over ones intentions and inclinations. Thus Right Intention requires
self-discipline and mastery. One must be able to set the course for ones
thoughts and intentions, and amend them if they are wrongly directed
towards self or craving (and this connects Right Intention to Right
Effort, which is described below); it requires that one know what to
think about, or desire or fear, and how to direct ones thoughts appropriately. This mastery over self and thought is a mark of wisdom. Right
Intention also works with Right Speech and Right Action (the next two
steps), for these follow upon having the Right Intentions.
3. Right Speech
Right Speech involves not speaking in ways that are misleading, hurtful,
idle, slanderous and, importantly, self-creating (and this listing is not
exhaustive). Attachment to self may become entrenched through the use
of language, and in particular through the unmindful use of names and
words like I or me or mine. Right Speech involves being mindful of
such usage so that it does not propagate attachment to self.
Speech is not only carried out externally, but internally insofar as
we think in words. As with ones outward presentations in words, ones
inward thoughts should also not be hurtful (to others or to oneself
e.g., one should not have self-denigrating thoughts). Ones thoughts and

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words should involve care so as to avoid hurtful thoughts and words, and
one should notice the encroachment of attachment to self in thought and
speech. Right Speech connects closely to Right Intentions, and involves
discipline in our public as well as private utterances.
4. Right Action
Right Action involves refraining from harming others, stealing, lying,
killing, sexual misconduct (for monks, this would generally be extended
to any sexual activity) and more that is considered unwholesome. As
mental actions are also actions, Right Action extends to internal actions
or mental events (such as thoughts, desires, feelings, etc.). In this respect,
Right Action overlaps with Right Intention. Clearly, the categories are
not exclusive, and can be interpreted widely, but they are nevertheless
intended to cover particular areas of discipline, and Right Action pertains primarily to our outward behaviours.
5. Right Livelihood
Right Livelihood involves making a living in ways that do not infringe
on the other elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, particularly those
that prescribe moral conduct (such as Right Action and Right Speech).
Again, this would include not killing, stealing, lying, etc. Right
Livelihood can be regarded narrowly, as pertaining to how we make a
living, or more broadly, as pertaining to how we should live in general.
In this respect, Right Livelihood requires practising Right Intention,
Right Speech, Right Action, and other steps, through ones day and
over the course of ones life.
6. Right Effort
Right Effort involves the effort that needs to be put forth for following the Noble Eightfold path. It includes making the effort to prevent
unwholesome mental states from arising. As noted, it overlaps with
Right Intention, and is needed in order to enable one to have the Right
Intentions. Right Effort, in preventing selfish, hurtful, hateful or otherwise unwholesome thoughts from arising, clearly involves discipline.

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This disciplining can take the form of keeping ones attention on contrary states of mind such as compassion and kindness.
Right Effort is included in the grouping of mental discipline. It
includes the discipline involved in moving ones attention from one
thought or state to another (as from an unwholesome thought to a
wholesome thought, as noted above, or from a first-order desire to a
second-order state that does not desire the satisfaction of the first-order
desire). This kind of detachment, and control over the course of ones
thoughts and desires and locating ones attention appropriately, requires
the mental discipline of Right Effort (as well as other steps on the Noble
Eightfold Path, in particular the next two).
7. Right Mindfulness
Right Mindfulness involves being continually aware of ones thoughts,
motives, and actions. It involves being aware of when a sense of self
intrudes and begins to lead ones behaviour or thoughts. In order to
exercise the self-control of Right Effort, and be able to prevent unwholesome states of mind and actions from coming to pass, it is important
to be closely self-aware, and Right Mindfulness involves this constant
vigilance and self-awareness. Right Mindfulness involves paying close
attention, watching the elements of the aggregates (sensations, perceptions, volitions, etc.) to see whether there is craving and attachment. The
idea is that by watching closely one will be less prone to falling prey to
cravings and attachments, for one will be aware of these states as they
arise. By astutely observing the impermanence of the aggregates, the
mindful practitioner will see that there is nothing permanent to which
to attach.
In being mindful, a distance is created in the mind wherein one steps
back in order to observe mental processes, rather than just be embroiled
in them. Being mindful is important for not being subsumed in ones
thoughts and desires. To elaborate, mindfulness requires a degree of
detachment or remove in order to stand back and be aware of thoughts,
desires, and other mental states as they occur. This standing back and
being aware, or being mindful, involves occupying a higher-order state

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in relation to the lower-order state of which one is being aware. In contrast to cravings, which are higher-order states that seek the satisfaction
of lower-order states in order to satisfy a self, being mindful involves
being aware of lower-order states from the vantage of higher-order states
without being desirous of their satisfaction. Mindfulness, it is important
to note, is not passive awareness. It involves the (Right) effort of moving
ones thoughts and attention to a perspective or vantage from which one
may be aware of lower-order thoughts and desires. In being mindful
one takes ones attention to a step remove. Mindfulness involves detachment, and placing attention in a detached state requires concentration
and mental discipline. Notice that if, for instance, someone is mindful
of being angry, then he is not fully invested in his anger; he is stepping
back in his minds attention in order to be aware of being angry, and
this is consequently to become at least a little less angry than he might
otherwise be. Thus mindfulness also has an important role to play in
cultivating moral conduct in the Noble Eightfold Path.
By being mindful a person may shift from being fully invested in
following through on a desire to concomitantly being aware of himself
as following through on the desire. In doing so, he moves his attention, or divides his attention, away from the desire. And the better the
powers of his concentration, the better he can redirect and focus his
attentions. Thus, Right Mindfulness involves and draws upon Right
Concentration.
8. Right Concentration
Right Concentration involves cultivating focussed awareness. As
described, all the steps on the Noble Eightfold path involve discipline.
And discipline requires concentration and focus. Right Concentration
pairs up well with Right Mindfulness and Right Effort, particularly
as these apply to mental cultivation. It is important to be mindful
aware and removed in order to put forth the Right Effort to prevent
unwholesome states from coming about, or to help overcome them once
they have come about. But being mindful requires concentrating. Thus,
it is not enough to be aware without focussed awareness. Likewise,

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it is not enough to put forth effort without focussed effort. Without


Right Concentration, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness can fall
into disrepair and idleness. In a sense, Right Concentration speaks to
the Rightness in Right Effort and Right Mindfulness (for to put forth
Right Effort and Right Mindfulness rightly involves concentration and
focus). Right Concentration is not only important for cultivating Right
Mindfulness, but can also be described as extending or building upon
Right Mindfulness, for in Right Concentration one is not just called
on to be aware from a step remove, but to concentrate in being aware;
to wilfully be aware not of many things, but of few or one. It involves
focussing or channelling ones powers of attention and mindful ability,
just as a magnifying glass can focus the suns rays. This capacity for Right
Concentration is especially important for meditation.

More on Mindfulness

Mindfulness is meant to be a constant or fairly constant state of mind.


In being mindful one is to be ever vigilant, rather than occasionally or
intermittently mindful (for this intermittence may not notice, let alone
prevent, the rising of unwholesome thoughts and cravings the preventiveness of mindfulness requires exercising it without such gaps). This
constant employment does not seem to be required, at least not to the
same extent, of other steps on the Noble Eightfold Path. For instance,
Right Speech and Right Action pertain to moments when speech and
action are performed or are called for. But again, Right Mindfulness
(although perhaps not only Right Mindfulness) is required as a constant state of mind. This constant mindfulness means that the Buddhist
is always supposed to keep a mindful distance and detachment in his
mind. This means never getting fully embroiled in a mental state (be
this hate or love, anger or joy, or any other state) for reason of always
occupying a mindful remove. A Buddhist adept cannot be mindfully
aware of an episode in his mind if he is fully preoccupied with it. To
be mindfully aware of his mental states, an adept must remain partly
removed from them. Mindfulness requires that he keep at least part of

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his power of attention occupied with being an ever watchful eye. Right
Concentration, it is worth recalling, involves being effectively mindful
and even more fully allocating and concentrating ones attention to this
watchful eye (as with concentrated awareness of the movement of ones
breath in breathing meditation).
As described, being mindful of being angry involves relocating attention away from being angry, or away from other concerns, to being
mindful. As a consequence, being mindful of being angry entails being
at least a little less angry than one might otherwise be; it involves being
partially removed from the feeling of anger so that one can be mindfully
aware of it. But it is not only unwholesome states of which the Buddhist
is charged to be mindful. As noted, Right Mindfulness requires that
the follower be ever-mindful. And thus, the follower is to be mindful
of happiness or joy as well. This is to say that, in the experience of happiness, one is not to indulge fully in the feeling, but to concurrently be
mindful of the feeling. Again, in being mindful, the Buddhist adept
removes part of his attention to a point from which he may concurrently
be aware of being happy. But this should mean that being mindful leads
him to be less happy than he might otherwise be (just as being mindful
of his anger should lead him to be less angry than he might otherwise be
due to the detachment involved). Thus, the mindful person may be less
angry, less happy, less sad and less joyful, than he might otherwise be for
reason of being mindful and the detachment this involves. The mindful person should be less attached to extremes (good or bad), and more
detached and more dispassionate in general.
Perhaps this is at a cost: a moderation with fewer extremes of happiness and joy than otherwise might be available. However, the end of
suffering and the attainment of happiness are not univocal in Buddhism
(not unless happiness is reinterpreted so that it is not merely a pleasant
psychological feeling, or the result of desire satisfaction, just as suffering
has been reinterpreted away from being merely an unpleasant feeling
or the result of unsatisfied desire in the movement away from the first
and second groupings to the third grouping of the First Noble Truth).
The end of suffering involves overcoming attachment to self. This may
lead to happiness, but, as we all know, a feeling of happiness can also

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be gained through satisfying the desires and pleasing the senses of a


self. These experiences, while not bad in themselves, lead to suffering
in the Buddhist sense if pursued with attachment and craving. Indeed,
attachment to happiness is also suffering-inducing, and so maintaining a mindful remove from an experience of happiness is a good thing
from the Buddhist perspective (even if there is some cost in happiness).
Mindfulness, for instance, can help one realize that happiness is transient. But this realization involves detachment from the experience of
happiness (so that one may stand back and observe the transience of this
happiness), and this involves some cost in the happiness being experienced. A lowered potential for feeling extremes of happiness or pleasure
seems to come with the detachment and dispassion involved in the disciplines of the Noble Eightfold Path, and in particular the exercise of
Right Mindfulness. However, there is arguably a compensatory benefit,
not only in the end of suffering, but in the greater awareness, and in
the greater repose and equanimity, that may come with detachment and
dispassion.
In being mindful of ones thoughts there is no literal looking going
on, for there are no literal eyes directed inwards to the contents of ones
mind (and no literal things to be seen even if there were eyes). The
attentiveness of mindfulness may be described as involving a metaphorical looking. It is introspecting with attention and discernment. The
Argument from the Aggregates (which was described in Chapter Four
and which will be revisited in the next chapter) involves mindfulness
of the aggregates; it involves looking carefully and with discernment
at the play and movement of the aggregates and observing that there is
no permanent self or entity to be found. More than this, and as already
described, the process of being mindful helps in the process of overcoming attachment to self. This is because in being mindful one detaches,
at least somewhat, from the state being experienced so that one can be
observant and mindful of the state. The detachment that comes with a
mindful and dispassionate observation of ones mind is part of overcoming attachment to self in ones mind.

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VIII
The Doctrine of No Self

Introduction

Th e Bu ddh a fa mously stat es: If a man should conquer in battle


a thousand and a thousand more, and another man should conquer himself, his would be the greater victory, because the greatest of victories is
victory over oneself.1 In this chapter, the doctrine of No Self will be
discussed. In the following two chapters, the doctrines of Impermanence
and Dependent Origination will be presented. These, along with the
Noble Truths, are basic doctrines and truths of Buddhism. The doctrine of No Self will be derived primarily from what is being called the
Argument from the Aggregates. This argument was first presented in
Chapter Four. In this chapter it will be described further, developed
with two textual analogies and additional aspects and consequences will
be discussed.
No Self is a translation of the Sanskrit anatman (anatta in Pali).
Anatman is a literal denial of Atman. It is a rejection of self as being
any sort of entity that is permanent or enduring and that stands apart
1
Dhammapada Ch. 8, 103.

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from the ever-changing aggregates. The doctrine of No Self denies an


essence or substance underlying the aggregates. When it comes to the
self, there are just the changing aggregates. The Buddha, after his First
Preaching of the Four Noble Truths, preached of the non-existence
of the self and soul. As described in Chapter Two, the Buddha, while
meditating under a pipal tree prior to his awakening, carried out a careful and patient observation. Observing the states of his body, and the
contents of his mind, he observed that there is nothing that was constant.
The body changes through the processes it undergoes, and the contents
of the mind are in flux. He found no underlying and unchanging self
that stands behind his mental and physical processes; rather, he observed
only the processes. He called these processes the five aggregates (skandhas
in Sanskrit, khandhas in Pali). These were described in Chapter Four.
They are called aggregates of attachment because it is held that we
readily attach a sense of an unchanging self or ego to the aggregates.
According to the Buddha, the self is really no more than a composite of
the five continually changing aggregates with no permanent core. The
Argument from the Aggregates repudiates the notion of a permanent,
substantive self that is independent of the aggregates but, in doing so,
it admits a notion of a changing self that is composed of the aggregates.
This rejection of a substantive self, while admitting the possibility of a
composite self, will be discussed later in this chapter.

The Argument from the Aggregates

The Argument from the Aggregates for the doctrine of No Self, originally presented in Chapter Four, appears straightforward. It is an a posteriori
argument based on empirical observation. The Buddha observed the
movement of the aggregates, and observed nothing but these aggregates.
He observed no underlying or permanent self among these aggregates.
And based on these observations he concluded that there was no permanent self. To be clear, there is no self that is unchanging over the course
of ones life, but also, there is no self that is unchanging for any length
of time over which the aggregates are observed to arise and pass. There

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is nothing that is observed not to arise and pass in our conscious awareness, and so there can be no self that stands as an exception to changing,
arising and passing. The conclusion of No Self in this argument is based
on observation, and thus the argument is empiricist in its methodology.
According to this methodology, our belief in self our sense of self
should be based on nothing more than what is observed. If our sense of
self involves a permanence that is not observed in the arising and passing
of the aggregates, it is ungrounded.
This is the Argument from the Aggregates. It repudiates the notion
of a permanent self. Its methodology affirms that if anything is judged
to exist it must be open to empirical observation. However, if the self
is unobservable, then the method of empirical observation cannot be
applied. Such a concept of self arises with Atman in the Upanishads.
This is the True Self. Atman is described in the Upanishads as pure subject. This is taken to mean that it is pure consciousness without object or
content; awareness without an object of awareness. On this view, Atman
does not exist as an object, and so it is not an observable object. The
Argument from the Aggregates faces a challenge with this concept of
self, and this is worth elaborating.
The aggregates our sensations, desires, intentions, bodily processes,
etc. are objects of our awareness (be this introspective awareness of
the contents of our minds or, in the case of bodily processes, also outward sensory awareness). We can only observe what can be an object of
awareness. No unchanging subject is observed among these aggregates.
But then the subject of awareness the subject that is aware and that is
doing the observing cannot be observed qua subject. The experiencer
cannot be observed as an experiencer, but only as an object of experience.
Thus, the conclusion that there is no pure subject to be found among the
aggregates does not rely on observation for it is not the sort of thing that
could be observed. It can be concluded a priori, without observation, that
no pure subject will be observed among the aggregates, for the subject
that is aware cannot be observed without being rendered as an object.
To further illustrate, an image of oneself in a mirror (or an image of
oneself in ones minds eye) is an object of observation. To observe this
image is to observe an object and not the subject who is observing. The

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observer as a subject is not observed. To recall a memory of oneself is to


encounter a memory, and not to encounter the subject who is recalling.
Since observation can only observe what can be an object of observation (or experience can only encounter what is an object of experience),
it follows a priori that the subject of experience qua subject will not be
observed. No actual observation need be conducted to know that a pure
subject will not be encountered in an observation. This is not to say
that such a subject exists, as the Upanishads purport, but only that the
Argument from the Aggregates appears restricted by its empiricist methodology from arguing against the Upanishadic Self or Atman.
The method of observation of the Argument from the Aggregates
does not apply to Atman as pure subject. Thus, if the appropriateness of
this method is not independently justified, then its use against Atman is
question-begging. To elaborate further, the applicability of the Argument
from the Aggregates depends on the concept of self under scrutiny. If the
self is understood to be a permanent entity that exists as an object in the
world, then the method of observation can yield that no such entity is
found. But if the self is considered to be a pure subject something that is
not an object in the world and is thus unable to be observed as an object or
entity then the method of observation cannot be applied and yields no
conclusion. Of course, to say that the self exists but is not an observable or
encounterable entity or object in the world is a tall order. Perhaps unjustifiable. But the Upanishads did assert such a view of Atman. Consider the
following passage from the Brhadarankyaka Upanishad:
You cannot see the seer of seeing, you cannot hear the hearer of
hearing, you cannot think the thinker of thinking, you cannot
understand the understander of understanding. He is your self
[Atman] which is in all things.1
1
Brhadarankyaka Upanishad III.4.2, p. 220. See also III.7.23, p. 230: He is
never seen but is the seer, he is never heard but is the hearer. He is never
perceived, but is the perceiver. He is never thought but is the thinker. There
is no other seer but he, there is no other hearer but he, there is no other
perceiver but he, there is no other thinker but he. He is your self [Atman],
the inner controller, the immortal. Everything else is evil.

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In the early Upanishads, the self is the mysterious subject: the self is the
seer, the hearer, the thinker and knower. The self and it is Atman that
is meant here is not the seen, the heard, the thought or the known. It is
pure subject, or pure consciousness, and because of this, it is mysterious
(for it cannot be known as an object of knowledge). Atman cannot be
observed or known as an object. That is why Atman is held to only be
knowable through a direct, unmediated, inward experience an experience of pure consciousness (for this is thought to be able to know Atman
as pure subject). Again, the method of observation employed in the
Argument from the Aggregates does not apply to this self. The method
of observation does not discover that the Upanishadic Self is not found;
its method precludes its being found. Later in this chapter, another argument, that does not appear to beg the question, will be applied to Atman;
it is called the Argument from Lack of Control.
The Argument from the Aggregates has another related weakness.
The method of observation presumes a dualism between the observing
subject and the object observed. But Atman, by way of its identity with
Brahman, is not dualistic; it is monistic. Thus, an argument that presumes
a dualistic framework in arguing against Atman as does the Argument
from the Aggregates again seems to beg the question. Buddhism, as
discussed, does not subscribe to the monism of the Upanishads. It does,
though, uphold the possibility of non-dualistic experience (and like the
Upanishads, it connects non-dualistic experience to the ending of suffering this connection was considered in Chapter Six in the discussion of
Nirvana and will be revisited in the discussion of Emptiness in Chapter
Thirteen). The point here is that non-dualistic experience such as the
realization of Atman presents an exception to the dualistic empiricist
methodology of the Argument from the Aggregates.
Still, the primary aim of an argument for No Self is not simply to render a conclusion about what does or does not exist, but to be of service
in the practical objective of overcoming suffering. The Buddha lived at
a time when the heights of spiritual realization were described as involving a realization of True Self. The Upanishads hold that the True Self is
to be known through a direct inward experience, and that this enables

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a monistic experience of reality in which suffering is overcome. The


Buddha, in rejecting this, presumably felt that this approach was not an
effective way of obtaining release from suffering and hence enlightenment. The Buddhas disagreement with this traditional approach is quite
pronounced, for the Buddhas approach involves overcoming, rather than
a realization of, an independent and permanent self. For the Buddha
there is no True Self. Anatman is a repudiation of Atman. But we might
still wonder why the pursuit of No Self is preferable to True Self as the
practical means to ending suffering? After all, both approaches involve
overcoming attachment to the ego-self.
This question may be answered by considering which approach is more
useful for overcoming craving (which is, according to the Second Noble
Truth, the source of suffering). Arguably, the objective of True Self, as
opposed to No Self, provides a positive end or goal that may be more
readily pursued with craving and attachment. In contrast, the doctrine of
No Self tells us that there is no self to attach to; no self in whose interests
we may crave. In this respect, No Self is similar to negative descriptions
of Nirvana: both serve to repudiate any positive content upon which
one may focus ones cravings. This is not to say that No Self cannot itself
be construed as a goal that one may crave; rather, because it is framed
negatively and without positive content, it may provide a goal that is less
amenable to attachment and craving. No Self, unlike True Self, involves
a denial rather than an assertion of self and thus seems to provide less of
a target for craving and attachment. Since craving involves attachment
to self, and seeks to satisfy a sense of self, it is arguably more effective
for overcoming craving to focus on realizing that there is no self rather
than focusing on attaining to a greater, universal conception of self. As
explained earlier, overcoming suffering involves, not overcoming desire
in general, but overcoming attachment to self in desire. This realization
was central to the Buddhas enlightenment and Middle Way. Attaching a
sense of permanent self hood to the ever-changing aggregates is summed
up to be the source of suffering in the First Noble Truth. Given this
understanding of suffering, No Self may be better suited for leading the
aspirant away from suffering than the pursuit of an unchanging True

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Self (for to put it plainly, with No Self there is no self to attach to the
aggregates). These are practical considerations, and not metaphysical
considerations, in favour of No Self over True Self.
The Argument from the Aggregates adopts an uncomplicated empiricist methodology: that which is not observed cannot be said to exist.
Likewise, we will presume, that which is observed can be said to exist.1
A permanent or enduring self is not observed. But the aggregates are.
The Argument from the Aggregates in concluding that there exists no
permanent self based on an empirical observation of the ever-changing
aggregates admits the existence of the aggregates. This means that a
self that is a composite of these aggregates is admissible under the doctrine of No Self. Since the aggregates are ever-changing, a self that is
composed of the aggregates would also be ever-changing. In short, in
rejecting the concept of a permanent self that exists independently of
the ever-changing aggregates, a concept of self that is a composite of the
impermanent aggregates is admitted.
A self that is a composite of its aggregate parts, we might think, cannot be more than the sum of its parts. After all, a physical object such
as a toaster cannot weigh more (or less, for that matter) than the sum of
the weight of its parts. Notwithstanding, a whole need not be the mere
sum of its parts for the ordering and organization of these parts makes a
difference. This can be illustrated with the example of a computer. To
say a computer is more than just the sum of its parts is not, if conceived
in the right way, to say that a computer contains a hidden or mysterious
or immeasurable component. Rather, it is just to assert that the operation of the computer is not to be found in the operation of any of its
parts considered separately, but in all the parts considered jointly, in the
right assembly and properly functioning. If these parts are disassembled
and separated, the parts remain but the computer does not. The same

1 The concept of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism, while it repudiates the


independent existence of the aggregates, admits the dependent existence of
the aggregates. Consequently, emptiness need not be taken to undermine
the observational claims that underlie the doctrine of No Self. The concept
of emptiness and these points will be elaborated and discussed in Chapter
Thirteen.

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point applies to the notion of self permitted under the Argument from
the Aggregates. This self is a composite entity, composed of aggregates
and, in a sense similar to a computer, can be a whole that is more than
the mere sum of its parts. That is, while a self that is a permanent entity
existing independently of the aggregates is denied, a self that is more
than just the mere sum of the aggregates in the sense just described is
not denied by the Argument from the Aggregates. The sense in which
a whole can be more than the mere sum of its parts may lead to the
misapprehension that there is something hidden, something unwavering
and underlying the parts. It may lead to a belief in Atman, or soul, or
permanent self. But this appeal to something special is not needed to
account for why a whole is more than the sum of its parts while still
being, in another sense, no more than the sum of its parts. Two traditional analogies will be presented to further illustrate this, and to bring
out further aspects of the doctrine of No Self and the Argument from
the Aggregates. The first involves a lute, and the second a chariot; they
both involve kings.

A Lute, a Chariot and the Composite Self

In the lute analogy, a king is moved but mystified by the sound of a lute.
He wants to know where the sound comes from and investigates. He
does not find the sound upon looking at the lute, and so proceeds to see
if he can find it among the parts. He breaks the lute into pieces but still
does not find the beautiful sound among them.1 The beautiful sound
only emerges when the parts are together, under a certain assembly, and
then only when played well. The instrument is more than the mere sum
of its parts for a mere sum without specific order and assembly is not
sufficient for being a lute that can be played to produce a beautiful sound.
1
Salayatanavagga, Samyutta Nikaya IV 196-98, p. 1254. As Collins notes, the
lute image recurs in the Milinda Panha 53, p. 84 and a similar analogy is
made using a conch-shell or trumpet in the Digha Nikaya II 337-38, p. 360.
See Collins (1982), p 279, ff. 20.

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By analogy, the parts of the lute are the aggregates, and the sound of the
lute is the self. It is worth further considering this, for there may seem to
be some ambiguity in the example between whether the self is analogous
to a well-functioning lute (i.e., one that can produce a beautiful sound),
or whether the self is analogous to the sound of a well-functioning lute.
That is, there may seem to be some scope for ambiguity in this analogy
between whether the self is taken to be analogous to the object (the lute),
or to the emergent property (the beautiful sound emerging from playing
the lute). Given that the king investigates the lute and its disassembled
parts looking for the beautiful sound, this suggests that the self is being
analogized with the sound the emergent property of the lute rather
than with the lute itself. The association of self with the sound of the
lute, rather than with the lute itself, suggests what in contemporary
terms would be called a functionalist view of self (for what matters for
producing the sound is that the parts be organized and work collectively,
i.e., what matters is the function being carried out, and not the particular
parts themselves).1
In the chariot analogy, a king named Milinda is asking questions of
a monk named Nagasena.2 The monk, standing before the king, tells
the king that although he is called Nagasena, there is no permanent
self or ego to be found. The king is puzzled by this response. Nagasena
elaborates with an analogy. He asks King Milinda how he managed to
arrive at his present location. The king replies that it was by his chariot.
Nagesena asks whether by chariot the king refers to the wheels. King
Milinda answers No. Nagasena asks if he means the frame, and the
king again answers No. Nagasena continues in this vein and asks if
chariot then refers to the axles, the spokes, the reins, and so on. For each
part the king responds No, admitting that the chariot is none of these.
Rather, he says, chariot is what we call all of these parts put together. In
the same manner, the monk responds, Nagasena or self is just a label

1 For a further explanation of functionalism see Kim (2011), Chapters 5 and 6.


An analogy for the self with the harmoniousness or attunement of a stringed
instrument is, interestingly enough, raised by Simmias and rejected by
Socrates in the Phaedo.
2
Milinda Panha 25-27. See also pp. 129-33 in Warren (1987).

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we attach to a sum of parts working together, and there is no underlying


entity, separate from these aggregated parts, named Nagasena. There
is no permanent referent of the name Nagasena. That is, just as the
word chariot does not refer to something that exists separately from
the appropriately ordered aggregate of chariot parts, likewise, the name
Nagasena does not refer to an entity or self separate from the everchanging composing parts or aggregates. In this respect, Nagasena is a
mere empty sound.1
A chariot, in a certain sense, is more than the mere sum of its parts.
A chariot is not more because it weighs more than the sum of its parts,
or because it contains some extra thing other than its parts, whatever that
may be; thats not the right sense of more. Rather, it is more than the
sum of its parts in the sense that it can do something that the parts by
themselves, taken separately or severally, cannot do. The chariot is the
parts put together in a certain way, and is a chariot insofar as it carries
out certain functions. The self, likewise, is more than just the sum of
its parts. But this is more apt to be confused. Similar to the chariot, the
self is more than the sum of its aggregate parts in the sense that the parts
must be organized appropriately to function as a self. The self is not more
than the sum of its aggregate parts in the sense that there is some extra
ingredient some unchanging essence or core or permanent spirit or
soul, conveys Nagasena. From the first-person or inside point of view,
however, it may seem we are more than the sum of our psychophysical
states in this sense. The analogy with the chariot asserts that the self is
properly viewed as a composite; it is a composite of the aggregates. The
1
Milinda Panha 26. See also p. 131 in Warren (1987). Collins provides an
adapted translation of a passage from the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa
XVIII 32, which expresses a similar thought: The mental and the material
are really here, but here there is no human being to be found. For it is void
and merely fashioned like a doll, just suffering piled up like grass and sticks.
From Collins (1982) p. 133. And in the Sagathavagga, Samyutta Nikaya I 135,
p. 230, a nun named Vajira responds to Mara, the Evil One, by saying:
Why now do you assume a being? Mara, is that your speculative view?
This is a heap of sheer formations: Here is no being found. Just as with an
assemblage of parts, the word chariot is used, so, when the aggregates exist,
there is the convention a being.

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analogy is limited, though, as the aggregates are ever-changing while


the composite parts of a chariot need not be.1 The analogy is similar to
David Humes so-called Bundle Theory of self, in which the self is
regarded as a composite or bundle of perceptions, and not as something
underlying and independent of these perceptions (see Chapter Four for
the discussion and comparison of Hume and the Buddha).
In the lute example, the king looks for the sound in the lute; he breaks
it apart and looks for the sound amongst its pieces. This indicates that the
self is not analogous to the lute itself, for the king does not look for the lute,
which he breaks up, but for the beautiful sound of the lute. By analogy
then, the self is not the composite of the appropriately ordered aggregates
but an emergent property of the composite of the appropriately ordered
aggregates. In contrast, in the chariot example, this reading is not a possibility. The chariot is the well-ordered and well-functioning composite of
chariot parts. The example does not suggest that the chariot is a property
of this composite of parts. Indeed, it would not work well as an example
if it did for this is not how we normally speak of a chariot (that is, we
would not say a chariot is a property of a composite of chariot parts but
would say a chariot is a composite object made of parts). By analogy then,
the self is a well-ordered and well-functioning composite of aggregates,
and not a property of this well-ordered and well-functioning composite
of aggregates. The two examples thus raise differing analogies. There is a
difference between comparing the self to the sound of a lute (and not the
lute itself ) versus comparing the self to a chariot. Nonetheless, both analogies help illustrate the Argument from the Aggregates. Both analogies
convey that the self is not a permanent entity underlying the aggregates
for no such self is to be found. In both analogies, the self is dependent
upon the aggregates being well-ordered and well-functioning for not
any ordering or organization of aggregates will do. In what follows, this
concept of self will be referred to as a composite self , composed of the
ever-changing aggregates (even though, strictly speaking, this phrasing

1 The impermanence of the aggregates will be discussed further in the next


chapter. The Buddhist understanding of the continuity over time of objects
with changing parts will be more fully discussed in Chapter Eleven.

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suits the chariot analogy better than the lute analogy). While a chariot
is an aggregate of physically described parts, the composite self would
include psychologically described states or factors. Our composing parts
are different psychological or psychophysical states and events but we
are nonetheless held to be composite creatures.
We may admit that, when we inwardly observe, we only encounter
the ever-changing aggregates. However, our sense of self may still convey
that we are more than this. We may look to the aggregates and find them
to be insufficient individually, severally, and collectively to account
for this sense of self. We can see this, for instance, in our self-ascriptions.
When I say I am hungry, I speak of an aggregate: the feeling of hunger. I also speak of a self that is distinct from the aggregate. That is, in
speaking this way I usually do not just mean that there is a body that is
hungry, or that there is a stomach that is empty, or that the aggregates
are collectively hungry (how odd that sounds!). Rather, I mean that I am
hungry; that there is a self that is feeling the bodys hunger; and that is
feeling the emptiness not just of a stomach but of its stomach. I register
the hunger as the hunger of a self my self that exists in some manner
apart from the hunger it feels and apart from the aggregates in general.
The Argument from the Aggregates asserts that this is mistaken. It asserts
that this belief and sense of self is unfounded and involves thinking of
the self as more than the sum of its parts in the wrong sense of more, as
described earlier. The doctrine of No Self admits no more than that the
self is a composite of the aggregates. Thus, the relation between the self
and an aggregate such as hunger needs to be appreciated differently. Note
that it is not just my belief about my hunger, but the affective quality of
my hunger which is experienced and felt as the hunger of a self that
needs to be appreciated differently. The doctrine of No Self conveys that
our sense of self our sense of what we are as evidenced in our desires,
hopes, fears, and other psychological states, widely overreaches the truth
of what we are. And that this needs, through the disciplinary measures of
the Noble Eightfold Path, to be conditioned and reined in.
The aggregates that make up the composite self are ever-changing,
continually arising and passing in our awareness. The composite self

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is thus also ever-changing. However, the self we identify with over


time and believe ourselves to be is presumed not to be this composite
ever-changing self. That is, it is said that for those amongst us who are
unenlightened, our sense of self presumes a permanence that is not found
with the ever-changing aggregates. When we crave, for instance, we
presume that the self to be satisfied will be in some essential aspect the
same as the self who presently craves. It is attachment to this self the self
that we feel endures or remains the same in some essential aspect that
is held to be the source of suffering. The Argument from the Aggregates
and the doctrine of No Self repudiate this self. No unchanging, independent self is observed. Suffering in the Buddhist conception is caused by
attachment to an illusory self. This is an attachment to a phenomenon
of something permanent that stands behind the aggregates and moves us
and compels us but that does not exist. So it is asserted in the doctrine
of No Self. Our attachments to this non-existent self convey that we
do not truly know our selves. The relation between impermanence,
identity and self is important and will be continued in the next chapter,
on Impermanence, as well as in Chapter Eleven in its discussion of continuity and identity.
Collins points out that arguments for no self serve not simply to
persuade us of the truth of the doctrine of No Self, but are a basis for
meditative reflection that is to help lead to a realization of No Self. This
is to view arguments for No Self as strategies for overcoming attachment
to self. Collins states:
For Buddhist specialists, considered as a general category, the doctrine is taken literally and personally, and thus anatta represents a
determinate pattern of self-perception and psychological analysis,
which is at once the true description of reality in Buddhist terms
it sees things as they really are and the instrument by which the
aspirant to Nirvana progresses towards and achieves his goal.1

1 Collins (1982), p. 12. Collins provides a nice rendering of a relevant passage


from the Samyutta Nikaya III 155-56, p. 114: when a monk lives with a
mind familiar with the practice of seeing impermanence (continued)

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The Argument from the Aggregates has a practical role. This argument
does not merely argue against the concept of self as a permanent entity
standing apart from the aggregates, but provides a means for overcoming
the cravings and attachments that bind us to this concept of self. The
Argument from the Aggregates is empiricist in method. Following the
argument requires that we actively look at the aggregates so as to discover
that there is no self to be found among them. This looking is an exercise
in mindfulness. In looking, we are supposed to come to realize that
our attachments to a permanent or enduring self are unfounded. The
argument asks us to see for ourselves, to look to all that can be observed,
to all prospective candidates for what may be a self, and discover for
ourselves that it is not the permanent self we believe and feel ourselves
to be. For each thing we encounter we can ask if it is or if it supports a
permanent self, and return the answer that it is not a self and does not
support a permanent self. We inwardly encounter desires, hopes, beliefs,
thoughts, images, memories and much more. And for each observed
state we can return the answer that it is not self; that it is not the self I
think I am. This is supposed to not only persuade us, intellectually, that
there is no permanent self among the aggregates. More important than
this, our attachment to being a permanent self will, it is thought, begin
to unlatch as we assiduously and unsuccessfully look for it among the
aggregates. The primary bearing of looking closely at the aggregates is
to help overcome attachment to self, and only secondarily of coming to
believe in No Self (for the primary objective is to overcome suffering,
and it is affective attachment, not belief, that is the key impediment).
An argument that relies for its persuasion on our active looking and
participation has more scope for affective influence that is, influence
in overturning our psychological attachments than an argument that
proceeds strictly deductively or without need of observation.
Also, being reminded that we are comprised of the aggregates is held
familiar with the practice of seeing unsatisfactoriness in what is impermanent familiar with the practice of seeing not-self in what is unsatisfactory,
in his body, his consciousness, and all external objects, with a mind which is
turned away from the conceits I and mine, he quickly reaches liberation.

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to be useful in realizing No Self. This is to be reminded that we are


composed of our sensations, body, etc., just as a chariot is composed
of its wheels, axles, etc. These reminders are supposed to help undo
attachment to the concept of a permanent self existing apart from the
aggregates because if we admit that we are partly comprised of our sensations, we thereby admit that we are not an entity standing behind our
sensations; or if we admit that we are partly comprised of our body, then
we admit that we are not an entity that oversees or owns or otherwise
stands separate from the body. This is again to assert that this argument
for No Self, as with any argument for No Self, is not strictly directed at
arriving at a true belief, but in helping to overcome attachment to self.
One may agree with the doctrine of No Self, but that does not mean
attachment to self in the sense of being a permanent entity has been
overcome. The attachment may continue (in defiance or disregard of
the belief ), but that is why a mere argument, no matter how compelling, is not enough to overcome attachment and suffering. Belief is one
thing, and the easier to change; psychological and affective attachment
is another, and much harder to purge. For this discipline is needed; and
specifically, it is advised, the discipline of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Argument from Lack of Control

In this section, another argument for No Self will be discussed. This


argument will be called, drawing on Steven Collins, the Argument
from Lack of Control.
The ascetic with little nourishment, exposure to the elements, and
other material hardships over the course of years, may seem to have put
himself in a much weakened state. Being powerful and being an ascetic
might not strike us as complementary. However, asceticism has been
described as a means of gaining great power, indeed universal power: the
ascetic tries, through severe discipline, to control his body and desires;
and this self-disciplining is thought to lead to a realization of Atman,
the True Self, and with this Brahman or Ultimate Reality as well. This

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is a world conquering asceticism. The realization of True Self, and the


power implied in being one with Brahman, suggests that there should
be no limitations in being able to exercise power or control over oneself.
There should be no limitations that come from beyond the self for the
realization of Atman is a unity with Brahman. The realization of True
Self seems to entail full self-control. This way of thinking, in addition to
its presumption of monism, presumes that such control over self can be
gained. Collins relays a line of argument in which the Buddha contends
that there is no such control. The self cannot exist without limitations in
control and is not independent of being causally affected. It is thus argued
that there is no control as is implied with the realization of Atman, and
so there is no such self. Collins states:
a major motive for world-renouncing asceticism in Brahmanical
thought was the desire for universal power, attained through
knowledge of, and control over, the self (atman) as microcosmic
reflection of the macrocosmic force of the universe (Brahman).
The first way in which the Buddha attempted to deny the existence of such a self was, accordingly, to claim that no such control
existed. It is found at the beginning of the Discourse on the [fact
of things having the] Characteristic of Not-self (Anattalakkhana
Sutta), traditionally the Buddhas second discourse. Here he speaks
of all five constituents of personality I take body as an example:
body, monks, is not self. Were it self, the body would suffer affliction, and one could have of body (what one wished, saying) let
my body be this, let my body be that. Elsewhere, the Buddha asks
an interlocutor do you have power over this body to change it at
will?1
As Collins notes, the Buddha responded to the view that the body
is the self [i.e., Atman] by saying: Were it self, the body would suffer
affliction, and one could have of body (what one wished, saying) let

1 Collins (1982), p. 97.

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my body be this, let my body be that.1 The thinking here is that if the
body is the self, or part of ones self, and the self has full control, then
one should be able to overcome bodily afflictions, for affliction indicates
that the self does not have sufficient control to overcome affliction. That
is, if we maintain that the self is a controller to the extent of having
full control, then it follows that the body cannot be included with the
self for otherwise the self should have control over the afflictions of the
body. This line of argument is extended to other aggregates that we
might associate with the self, such as thoughts, memories, perception,
consciousness. The argument unfolds similarly. With each aggregate we
observe a lack of full control. For instance, we do not have full control
of our memories all our memories such that we can recall every
experience perfectly, or cease to remember experiences we wish to forget. Thus, the self cannot both have full control and include memories.
Likewise, we cannot have complete control over our thoughts, desires,
and beliefs; these are causally conditioned and are affected by events and
circumstances beyond our control. Thus, as long as this degree of control
is a requirement for being a self, then the self cannot include thoughts,
desires, or beliefs either.
The argument tries to establish that the self cannot be a controller
with full control, for with whatever we consider to be a self, or associate
with a self, we see that there is significantly less than full control over it.
Simply said, there is nothing over which a self can exert full control. The
self cannot exist apart from being causally conditioned by circumstances
beyond its control. That is, the argument from Lack of Control conveys
that the self cannot have full control because it cannot exist apart from
being causally affected. This is an argument against a self that is unconditioned, independent, and a controller to this degree. Atman, the True
Self, was considered to be just such a self. Being identical with what is
ultimately real Brahman meant that there was nothing outside of or
more basic than Atman that could causally affect it; there is nothing that
should be able to interfere with its extending full control.

1 Collins (1982), p. 97.

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It was described earlier that the Argument from the Aggregates


employs empirical observation. As long as this method is not separately
justified, its employment against Atman seems question-begging. The
Argument from Lack of Control offers another means of argument.
Indeed, it seems specifically directed at Atman or True Self (for with no
other view of self would we presume such full control). That is, this line
of argument seems effective against ascetics and others who hold that
there is a True Self (Atman) which, through its identity with Ultimate
Reality (Brahman), can exert full control and not be causally affected.
But it does not seem like this argument has much to offer as a general
argument for No Self for such strong notions of control are generally not
associated with our own sense of self. We can readily admit that we do
not have full control over our bodies and mental states. Thus, this line
of argument for No Self may not seem to offer any argument against the
conviction that we are a self in a sense that is less substantive than Atman
(i.e., a self that is independent of the aggregates but with only a limited
degree of control over the aggregates).
We may not presume to have complete control, but it is still part of
our sense of self that we are, to some extent, a controller (of our bodies and mental states). Indeed, part of what can make us think that our
selves are independent of the aggregates is that we can exert control over
them. We can it seems, through our will, initiate bodily movements and
sequences of thoughts. This sense of being a controller is connected to
our sense of being a free agent (for instance, in controlling the movement of my limbs I seem, to myself at least, to be doing so voluntarily).
A degree of control and a degree of freedom certainly are important
aspects of our sense of self. We feel free to move limbs, recall memories,
make decisions, and much more, all within certain bounds. A focus on
the sense of freedom in these actions, and the sense of control over these
actions, can lead to the thought that we are an underlying and controlling self, and thereby entrench an attachment to self. The Buddha,
with the Argument from Lack of Control, is counteracting these pulls
towards self by calling attention to the other side of the ledger. That
is, if feelings of control lead towards thoughts of being an independent

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self, then recognizing the lack of control, and recognizing that we are
causally conditioned and circumstantially affected in our actions and
thoughts, should lead towards thoughts of not being an independent self.
It is in this respect that the Argument from Lack of Control has a wider
applicability than being just an argument against Atman or True Self.
To further elaborate, the Buddha, in drawing attention to the issue of
control, brings to light how little control we actually have. We believe
we have control over our bodies, for instance, for we can move our
limbs as we please, move our mouths to utter words as we please, and
much more. But there is a great deal over which we do not have control.
Affliction, as seen above, is an example raised by the Buddha. We may
begin to ask why it is that, given we can control our bodies and minds
in certain ways, and even improve in our ability to control with training, there are still so many limitations in the control we can exercise.
For instance, why is it that, if I can move a limb freely, I cannot wilfully speed up the clotting process if I suffer a gash on that limb? Or,
if I can wilfully control certain patterns of neurons, and thereby set in
motion a causal sequence that leads to the movement of a limb, then why
is it that I cannot control other sets of neurons to set in motion other
causal sequences (such as those that would result in quicker healing, or
in overcoming fears and hatreds and other deep-set psychological traits,
all with a moments will). Why is it that I can wilfully improve my
eyesight temporarily by squinting, but I cannot improve it permanently
by commanding the structure of my eyes to correct themselves to perfect vision? That is, why can I not wilfully reorganize the cells on the
surface of my eye so as to correct my vision; why do I have control only
of neurons, and only limited control at that, and not over other cells in
my brain and body? Why do such problems with control or will appear
in some cases but not others that are otherwise similar? Why is it that
I can recall many memories at will, but there are many more things I
cannot adequately or fully recall upon command? Why is it that I am
in control over what I think in many cases but in other cases thoughts,
memories, desires, temptations, images, etc., pop into my mind without
being directed, move me in ways that may be contrary to my wishes, and

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remain in my attention after being directed to disappear? Why is it that I


cannot easily bring myself to enjoy tastes I now dislike, or to like feelings
I now dislike, so that events that make me upset or sad no longer do so?
In general, why is it that we can control our bodies and mental activity
in so many ways while there are so many other, and not so dissimilar,
ways in which we are not in control?
Asking these questions draws attention to the relationship we have
with the aggregates that we feel we preside over and control. These
questions highlight the limited degree of control we have. They do not
try to suggest that we should have more control, or that we do have
more control than we do, but press us to account for the nature of the
limitations in our control. There are certainly physiological reasons that
explain why I cannot wilfully direct the cells on the surface of my eyes
to change form so as to correct my vision. The Argument from Lack of
Control does not challenge this. But it does press this question: if the self
can exercise a degree of control over these aggregates, then why is it that
it cannot exhibit a greater degree of control? Where do the limitations
come from? We may presume that control originates in a self, and that
this self stands independently from the aggregates it controls (in a relation
of controller to controlled). Though once we admit this, the limitations
in its control become mysterious. However, if the self is not independent
of the aggregates if, instead, it is constituted by the aggregates then it
is more understandable why there is not unlimited control. To be constituted by the aggregates means that there is no independent self who
presides over the aggregates; and it means that limitations that apply to
the aggregates also apply to the self. For instance, the physiology of my
body and brain allow for certain events to unfold and prohibit or make
difficult others; and if the self is not independent of this body and brain
if it is constituted by them then it is also limited by this physiology.
Again, if we maintain that we are entities that exist independently of
the aggregates and also preside over and control these aggregates, then it
is difficult to account for the actual limitations in control. It is difficult
to explain why the self is under the constraint of the aggregates if it is
independent of them. The presumption of being a controlling self is an

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important part of our sense of self. The Argument from Lack of Control
gets us to question whether we are an independently existing controller,
and is supposed to thereby help wean us from an important element in
our attachment to self.
If thinking about what we can control, and the idea of being a controlling agent, leads us towards attachment to self, then thinking about
the lack of control we have should help lead us away from attachment to
self. This is to say that the Buddha offers a practical corrective with the
Argument from Lack of Control. Although, to be sure, the Buddha is not
denying that we have any control. After all, some control is presumed in
being able to choose to follow and undertake the disciplines of the Noble
Eightfold Path. The topic of being able to initiate decisions and extend
causal control will be further discussed in Chapter Ten on Dependent
Origination. Both the Argument from the Aggregates, considered earlier, and the Argument from Lack of Control, considered here, argue
that there is no self which exists independently of the aggregates. The
former argument asserts that no such self is observed. The latter argument conveys that a reason for thinking we are an independent self that
we have control over the aggregates is undermined when we pay mind
to the limitations in this control.

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IX
The Doctrine
of Impermanence

Introduction

Th e doct r i n e of I m pe r m a n e nce (anitya in Sanskrit, and


anicca in Pali) asserts that all arises and passes. It is a central doctrine of
Buddhism. It is important for understanding the Buddhist conception
of suffering, and the doctrine of No Self. In fact, the Buddhist doctrine of Impermanence implies the doctrine of No Self (for if there is
no permanence, there can be no permanent self ). As the self is no more
than a composite of the ever-changing aggregates, there can be no more
permanence to the self than is to be found among the aggregates. Our
awareness of ourselves and our awareness of the world is comprised of
states that arise and pass from the minds attention. Nothing stays stable
in the minds awareness. To begin, it is important to consider the correct
sense of impermanence. Change, as will be elaborated, can be conceived
of in different ways, but with the doctrine of Impermanence there is a
specific sense in mind.

130

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Arising and Passing

The Buddhas method in arriving at his understanding of Impermanence,


as with No Self, is empiricist. We observe change. The doctrine of No
Self, and in particular the Argument from the Aggregates for the doctrine
of No Self discussed in the previous chapter, involves careful observation
of the aggregates. Gautama, having left behind his ascetic practice, took
some food and sat underneath a pipal tree, vowing not to move until he
understood the nature of suffering. He undertook a careful observation
of himself looking inwardly in meditation and observed, similarly
to David Hume, that there was no self that stood apart from the aggregates. Moreover, he observed that everything he encountered among the
contents of his mind was in constant flux. Whatever could be associated
with his sense of self was observed to be ever-changing. He realized
not only that there is no self that is independent of the aggregates, but
there is no self that could be permanent given that the aggregates are
ever-changing. The careful observation of the impermanence of the
aggregates, in addition to providing the evidentiary basis for the doctrine of No Self, is the basis for the doctrine of Impermanence.
The aggregates include the contents of our minds that we observe
when we look inwardly. All our thoughts, impressions, perceptions, etc.,
of ourselves and of the world are to be found among these contents. They
are observed to arise in the minds attention and pass from the minds
attention unceasingly. When we consider the external world, outside
the contents of our minds, we also see impermanence, or at least, we
see change (for as noted the intended sense of impermanence is specific
and is not to be equated with just any manner of change this will be
elaborated soon). But when we look at the external world, we observe
not only change but also absence of change. That is, many things are
observed not to change, or not to change very much, or not to change
at anything near the frequency observed with the aggregates. And often
when we notice change it is against a background that is not changing.
Rocks, buildings and mountains, for instance, or stainless steel cutlery
and diamonds on rings, are not usually observed to change, at least to

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the naked eye. However, there are still changes occurring. For instance,
surfaces erode, corrode, or gradually degrade. It is just that these changes
are usually too slow to observe as they happen. And there is always
change at a microscopic and atomic level: tiny bits fly off or are added to
even the strongest and most solid objects; molecules decay and electrons
move in their orbits. While these changes may not be observable to the
naked eye, at an unobserved level change is ubiquitous. The doctrine of
Impermanence, it might seem, is vindicated by modern science.
However, these scientific vindications are not germane for understanding the Buddhas doctrine, for they do not fall under the method used by
the Buddha. The Buddha would not have known of change at a microscopic level. The Buddhas method was empiricist, and for this he relied
on what he could observe for himself. For instance, the Buddha would not
have observed that the mountain cave to which he retreated as an ascetic
was undergoing change at a staggering rate at a microscopic or quantum
level. He may have observed intermittent or gradual changes, such as rocks
tumbling down every now and then, but he would also have observed the
mountain not changing for long stretches of time. Consider the rock that
tumbles down and sits at the bottom of the mountain: how is it changing?
It may have undergone a change in tumbling down the mountain, but
what about after that, when it is sitting unmoved, and undisturbed, at the
bottom? No matter how hard Gautama might have stared, it would not
likely have changed before his eyes (and certainly not with the regularity
of the arising and passing of his minds contents). We may say the same
about a steel spoon, a diamond, and many things besides. The methods of
observation available to the Buddha at the time would convey that change
does not occur evenly and universally in the external, physical world. At
best, observation can convey that change will eventually come to everything, but it also conveys that there may be very long stretches of time
without observed changes (and in some cases, as with a diamond, a change
may not be observed during ones lifetime). The naked eye observes in the
external world both permanence and impermanence to varying degrees.
With this we come to the focus of the doctrine of Impermanence.
It applies to the aggregates, which are observed to arise and pass from
the minds awareness. This is not to imply that the aggregates are

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non-physical, or that the mind and its contents are immaterial. Rather,
it is to speak of the mind and its contents as they are observed introspectively, from a first-person point of view. This will be elaborated. A rock
sitting at the foot of a mountain may not seem to change while being
observed, but a perception of the rock is nonetheless impermanent. The
perception is subject to arising and ceasing: it comes into our attention
(when we are looking at the rock, for instance), and recedes from our
minds (when we turn away perhaps, or when we are no longer recalling
it). To say that the perception of the rock is impermanent is to say it will
soon be displaced from ones attention. It is the nature of the mind that
thoughts come and go; sensations, perceptions, desires, and other mental
contents arise and pass. It is these observations that underlie the doctrine
of Impermanence. The Buddha famously, and with good humour, compared the impermanence of the aggregates with swinging monkeys: our
thoughts and other mental contents move in and out through our minds
attention as monkeys swinging rapidly along from branch to branch.1
The Buddha did not endeavour to empirically determine what sorts
of things exist in the external world; his was not a scientific undertaking
of this sort. Instead, he carried out a careful observation of himself, and
specifically of what lay within his mind. He looked within figuratively
looked, for it was not with his eyes and encountered aggregates such as
perceptions. Perceptions may be of the outside world (e.g., a perception
of the fallen rock), but among the contents of his mind he encounters
the perceptions and not the objects perceived (i.e., no actual rocks in his
head, so to speak). The perception of the rock he observes in his mind
is about something outside of his mind. Our awareness of the world
involves sensations and perceptions, such as of streets, cars, buildings,
people and much more. Our awareness of ourselves also involves sensations and perceptions. For instance, feeling a toothache is a sensation and
acknowledging it as a toothache involves a perception. I am aware of
1
Nidanasamyutta, Samyutta Nikaya II 94-95, p. 595: Just as a monkey roaming
through a forest grabs hold of one branch, lets that go and grabs another,
then lets that go and grabs still another, so too that which is called mind
and mentality and consciousness arises as one thing and ceases as another
by day and by night.

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other states about myself that involve reactions to sensations and perceptions and I observe these also as contents of my mind. These include
desires, fears, hopes, dreads, likes, dislikes, or generally speaking, intentions and volitions. These are neither sensations nor perceptions, and so a
separate aggregate is needed to encompass them. This is the aggregate of
volitional and intentional activity. And further, I am also aware of being
conscious of the contents of my mind. For instance, I am not only aware
of perceptions and desires, but also aware that I am aware of perceptions
and desires. These items of reflective awareness are grouped under the
aggregate of conscious activity. I encounter still more among the contents of my mind: I am also aware of bodily states such as pain, hunger,
feelings of balance and imbalance, and other bodily states and feelings.
These are grouped under the aggregate of bodily processes.
As discussed in Chapter Four, the aggregate of bodily processes is
standardly read to refer to the physical processes themselves. A case was
made in that chapter for reading the aggregate to refer to the awareness or
experience of bodily processes (in which case this aggregate overlaps with
the aggregates of sensations and perceptions). Read in the latter way, the
aggregate of bodily processes includes the pain, rather than the gash on my
leg that causes the pain; it includes the feeling of hunger rather than the
empty stomach that causes the feeling; and it includes the feeling of being
imbalanced rather than the complex internal and external physiological
workings that may be causing the feeling. Read this way, the aggregate
of bodily processes is just like the other aggregates in that it refers to the
different things I may encounter among the contents of my mind (and not
the actual, physical processes themselves). The reason for raising this point
here is that it bears on the impermanence of this aggregate. If the aggregate of bodily processes referred to the actual bodily states and processes,
and not to the minds awareness of these states and processes, then this
aggregate would differ from the others in its impermanence.
To explain, the awareness of specific bodily states and processes arises
and passes within the minds attention with a frequency on par with the
other aggregates (e.g., I can come to feel hungry, think of something
else for a moment and lose sight of my hunger, and then quickly become

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aware of my hunger again). But physical states and processes are not
given to the same frequency or even kind of change. Changes my body
undergoes, such as aging and decay, may be very gradual and are quite
unlike the quick succession of contents in the mind. Also, the arising
and passing of aggregates from the minds attention is very different in
kind from the changes a body undergoes over time. Generally speaking,
changes a body undergoes would not be well characterized as involving
arising and ceasing. My foot, for instance, undergoes gradual changes
over time (e.g., as toenails grow), but it sounds odd, to say the least, to
describe this as an arising and passing of the foot. My foot may change,
but this change does not, I should hope, involve a passing or ending of
my foot (and while we might describe the growing toenail as an arising,
and the cut toenail as a passing, this too is out of place). These bodily
changes are not aptly described as arisings and passings. However, it is
not at all inappropriate to say that thoughts, perceptions, including those
of my foot, arise and pass from my minds attention. In short, thoughts
and perceptions about my foot, as with thoughts and perceptions about
any other part of my body or its states and processes, arise and pass. But
the bodily parts, states and processes themselves are not given to this
same kind of impermanence. Reading the doctrine of Impermanence
univocally, as involving change in the sense of arising and passing, can
affect how we understand the aggregate of bodily processes.
The aim of the systemization of aggregates is ultimately of a practical bearing: the aggregates include all that the Buddha could associate
with his sense of self. They include all he was aware of or encountered
within his mind, and yet the Buddha noticed an inward attachment to
a permanent self that he could not place among the different things he
encountered. He concluded that attachment to a permanent self is unjustified. More than this, the careful and regular attention to the aggregates,
and their arising and passing, is an important part of undoing attachment
to a permanent self.
Let us again consider the fallen rock, sitting still at the bottom of the
mountain. It may seem unchanging to my eyes. Every time I turn to look
at it I may judge it to be unmoved. I may stare at it, resolutely, and observe

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no changes. Of course, I may look at it from different angles and so the


rock may look different as I move around, but I can easily discern that
these different perceptions do not indicate that the rock itself is changing.
Indeed, if I always look at the rock from the same place and angle, under
the same lighting conditions, then my perceptions of the rock may not
change (along with the rock itself not changing). But the stability of these
appearances and perceptions does nothing to contravene the doctrine of
Impermanence. The doctrine does not deny that I might have similar
perceptions over time, but rather denies that any perception I have stays in
my mind. And once again, while we do know that the rock is undergoing changes at a microscopic level, the Buddha, relying on the methods
of observation available to him, would not have known this. The effort
to justify the Buddhas findings scientifically is misplaced. Whether the
rock can be known to change microscopically or not neither supports nor
contravenes the doctrine of Impermanence. Impermanence is a doctrine
focussed on the mind and its contents. This is not metaphysical idealism
for the doctrine does not assert or presume that only the mind and its
contents are real. To the contrary, encounters with the external world
are held to cause sensations and perceptions (which in turn lead to desires
and fears and other reactions within the aggregate of intentional and volitional activity). It is just that the doctrines focus is not the nature of this
external world (including the nature of the physical organism). That is
the province of natural science. The Buddhas concern is human suffering as understood to occur in the mind. The doctrine of Impermanence
asserts that the contents of the mind arise and pass from our awareness
unceasingly. The Buddha was endeavouring to carefully observe his own
mind, and thereby discern the roots of the suffering he felt therein, and
Impermanence is a doctrine about these observations.
To sum up so far, the doctrine of Impermanence concerns the impermanence of the aggregates. It asserts that the elements of these aggregate
groupings the particular contents of our minds awareness do not
stay in place; they constantly arise and recede. The focus of concern of
the doctrine is not whether there is permanence in the external physical
world. Instead, its focus is on our impressions of the physical world, as
well as other mental occurrences, and it asserts that these are subject to

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arising and passing. The Buddha was not trying to be a natural scientist;
his observations are psychological and bear on the mind and the human
condition. Likewise, the doctrine of Impermanence does not comment
on the permanence or impermanence of truths. It does not assert, for
instance, that scientific or mathematical truths will not last, or that they
will eventually turn from true to false. It does not say that Buddhist
teachings are only true for a limited time (although it does not deny that
some teachings may be less useful at some stages or for some objectives
than others and so may need to be put aside; this point will be discussed
in Chapter Fourteen). Rather, it says that any thoughts or beliefs about
such truths or teachings will, just as with any aggregate, arise in our
minds attention and then pass from our attention. And if the belief arises
in our minds again, this does not contravene that it had previously passed
from our attention, and that it will pass again.
It will further help to elucidate the sense of impermanence in the
doctrine of Impermanence to compare this with other, perhaps more
commonplace, views of change.

Other Views of Change

One way in which we understand change is in terms of motion or locomotion. In this sense, an object can undergo change without changes in
its internal structure. For instance, everything on earth is moving just in
virtue of the movement of the earth on its axis, or the movement of our
solar system within the galaxy, or the motion of the Milky Way galaxy
within the universe. This is a motion in which an object or person may
take part while remaining otherwise unchanged except for this motion.
Other examples: an object on the seat of a moving car is in motion but
otherwise may be quite still. A bullet tearing through the air is also
in motion, and so undergoing change, but it need not be undergoing
change in its composition or structure while it is moving.
However, the impermanence of the aggregates does not involve
motion. Not literally. The aggregates, witnessed introspectively as mental events do not literally move about in the minds eye (although the

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brain events that underlie them do involve motion). Still, we use terms
that signify motion figuratively. For instance, a fear may seem to rush
in unannounced, or an anger to slowly creep away. Also, we may say,
more generally, that these mental contents come and go, or arise and pass.
These terms do figuratively connote motion, but even this connotation
should not be taken too far. The aggregates are described as arising or
being born in our minds attention, and as passing or disappearing from
our attention. Everything among the aggregates arises and passes, we are
told, and this change is not primarily one of motion, figurative or not. It
would be more apt to characterize this change as one of coming into existence in our awareness, and passing out of existence from our awareness.
Consider another view of change. We often speak of an object changing in aspect or quality but nevertheless remaining the same object
through this change. For instance, suppose I paint a beige room blue.
The room is not the same for it has changed colour. But we speak of
it as the same room, for it is only different in a quality, and a fairly
inconsequential one at that. In fact, no matter what changes the room
undergoes, if I still speak of the room as having changed from what it
was before then it is still, despite the changes, the same room in my
estimation and way of speaking. That is, my identification of the room
from before to after the change, using the definite article the, indicates
a sameness of room. This way of speaking of change generally presupposes that something remains the same some identifying feature in
virtue of which we can say that thing, or it, has changed. It is important
for us, in describing changes, to be able to identify the object before and
after the change (for again, if we could not, then we could not say it has
changed or she has changed or I have changed). Consider another
example: the changes a person undergoes over the course of twenty
years. The persons body will have changed, and brain, thoughts, perhaps many beliefs and characteristics, or career, residence, relationships,
etc. In these and many other ways a person can change significantly over
the years. And if the span of time includes ones childhood, or infancy,
the changes undergone will be more remarkable still. However, despite
these changes, we still use the word I or me to refer to our previous

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self, prior to all the changes. No matter how much we change how
much we think we are a changed person we generally still refer to
ourselves before and after with the same referring expressions. We say I
used to be like this, and now I am not, or that was me; look how I have
grown. The use of the same referring expression, at least grammatically,
conveys a sameness of subject over time and through the changes, no
matter how dramatic or life-altering they may be.
The grammar involved in speaking of such changes warrants further
discussion. Generally speaking, when we say something changes, there
is a subject to which we ascribe change. Turning again to the previous
example of the room, when I say the room was once beige and is now
blue, the room is the subject of the sentence. We might think that for
any change, there must be a subject of whom we are speaking; for if there
is no subject, then who or what is changing? Of what are we speaking? A
predicate must speak of a subject it seems. In speaking of change this way
we distinguish between the subject of change and the changes the subject undergoes. Distinguishing subject from predicate is part of ascribing
qualities to a subject. However, the grammatical subject, in the Buddhist
view, is not to be taken as a separately existing subject. Although I can
use the indexical I to speak of myself at different times, the use of the
same word does not imply that something has remained the same through
those different times. As discussed, the doctrine of Impermanence repudiates this. Likewise, I can say sentences such as I am happy or I am
hungry, but the separation of subject from predicate in these and other
such sentences does not imply that a self exists separately from all the
qualities that can be ascribed to it. In the Buddhist view, there is no self
that exists separately from the aggregates. We ascribe bodily and psychological traits to a self, and we posit an unchanging I in speaking of this self
over time. This has its uses, but again, for the Buddha, this should not be
a cause for psychological attachment. Actions exist, says the Buddha, but
no doer; not in the sense of an independent and unchanging doer.
Ordinarily, when we speak of change especially of changes to ourselves our way of speaking presumes that something essential remains
the same. But the doctrine of Impermanence denies that there is a subject

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of change that remains the same through the arising and passing of the
aggregates. Nothing is observed amongst the aggregates that does not
arise and pass. While an aggregate may be observed to change in some
aspect or quality for instance, a desire may be observed to intensify
or diminish the aggregate is still observed to arise and pass. It may
be replied that we often speak of a mental state or thought as being the
same as one we had earlier. For instance, a desire for chocolate may be
identified as being the same desire for chocolate as experienced earlier
in the day. Thus, it might be said that aggregates can remain the same
over time. But this does not contravene Impermanence. The later desire
may be qualitatively similar to the earlier one, but it is still the case that
the earlier one passed from our attention and the later one arose in our
attention. The later desire is another desire for the same thing. They may
be qualitatively similar desires but are nonetheless different particular
desires. Whether mental states of the same type arise again or not, they
and everything else among the aggregates are still observed to arise and
pass. Sticking to his empiricist methodology and its reliance on observation, the Buddha steadfastly affirms the impermanence of the aggregates.

Numerical Identity and Qualitative Identity

Two notions of identity commonly used in the Western philosophical


tradition are numerical identity and qualitative identity. These notions
are relevant in discussing personal identity over time for the Buddha.
Qualitative identity involves the idea of two things being the same in
qualities or properties: there is no property one has that the other does
not. Thus, two classroom chairs may be qualitatively identical if they
are the same in colour, size, shape, construction, etc. Strictly speaking,
they are qualitatively similar but not identical, as one will have scuffs or
scratches that another does not have, and, of course, they have different
locations; but nonetheless we can say they are qualitatively identical for
most intents and purposes. Numerical identity involves identity in number; basically, something being one and the same as itself (and thus, two

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classroom chairs may be qualitatively similar, but could not be numerically identical since they are two chairs).
At first, it might seem that numerical identity doesnt say much.
Obviously, something is the same as itself. However, statements of
numerical identity can be informative if they identify an object under
different presentations. Consider this example: Reginald Dwight is Elton
John. This is a statement of numerical identity because we are saying that
they are one and the same person. The statement is informative for us if
we are familiar with one mode of presentation but not the other (e.g., if
we are familiar with Elton John but not Reginald Dwight). And if Elton
John is giving a concert in Grand Prairie, Reginald Dwight cannot be in
Venice on a gondola ride at the same time. If they are one and the same
person, then what is true of one is true of the other. This is to say that
where there is numerical identity, there is qualitative identity.
It is numerical identity that is asserted when we speak of personal
identity over time. If I consider myself thirty or so years ago, it is clear
that there are many qualitative differences. My body has changed, my
brain has changed, my mind has changed, my life has changed. And
dramatically so. I am not qualitatively the same. In fact, we might say
that we adults are more qualitatively similar to each other, than we are to
the toddlers or infants we once were.
Despite these qualitative changes, I can and still do speak of being the
same person over time. I can hold up a baby picture of myself and say
this was me as a baby. When I say that I am the same person as the baby
in the picture, that is a statement of numerical identity, not qualitative
(we should hope I am not qualitatively the same as a baby). Derek Parfit,
a contemporary philosopher who holds views somewhat similar to those
of Hume and the Buddha on personal identity, gives a good example of
this distinction when he states: I may believe that, after my marriage,
I shall be a different person. But that does not make marriage death.1 I
am different qualitatively after marriage, not numerically. We think and
make statements of numerical identity regularly in referring to ourselves

1 Parfit (1995), p. 293.

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in the past, and in thinking about ourselves in the future. If I am thinking of my old age, the person I am thinking of is qualitatively different
from the person here now (he will be older and greyer). Nevertheless, I
presume that that person will be me; I presume numerical identity.
The Buddha, with the doctrines of No Self and Impermanence, is not
denying the usefulness of speaking in terms of a numerically identical self.
But he is saying, just as did Hume, that the judgement is unjustified by
what we observe about ourselves. There is nothing about me that can be
the referent of the word I that remains unchanged over time.When I look
at myself, all I see are the ever-arising and ceasing aggregates. I see nothing
that remains the same and that is not subject to arising and ceasing. And
even if I did; even if I looked within and encountered some continuous
aggregate that remains unchanged, and that does not cease, then this still
would not adequately justify my judgement of numerical identity. This is
because my belief and sense of self involves not any particular aggregate,
but something that experiences the aggregates; something that has perceptions,
thoughts, and feelings, and this it is claimed is nowhere observed.
Speaking of a numerically identical I, and using the same word I
to refer to myself at different times or stages of my life, is not without
usefulness. In early Buddhist schools, this is described as a conventional
truth, and its usefulness is not denied. What is denied is that there is
an entity that underlies my self-ascriptions over time. There are only
the ever-changing aggregates, says the Buddha. Usefulness may excuse
speaking in terms of a numerically identical self, but does not justify
the attachment to the sense of being a numerically identical self, which
Buddhism finds to be widespread and suffering-inducing.
As noted, the necessity of a subject in our descriptions of change does
not imply that there is in fact something that exists and remains the same
through changes. As discussed, a grammatical requirement does not
by itself imply existence. The doctrines of No Self and Impermanence
claim that there is no self that is independent of the ever-changing aggregates and that is permanent over time. We obviously undergo changes,
sometimes dramatic changes, but there is nonetheless a presumption of
being the same self through these changes. The changes we undergo are
ascribed to this same self. We speak of this same self, but the idea is that

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we also feel there to be this same self. That is, we identify with and are
attached to this same self. This attachment involves a sense of permanence over time, from moment to moment and from one period of life
to another, and this is the source of suffering in the Buddhist conception. This sense of permanence over time is elaborated by the Buddha
with the ideas of annihilationism and eternalism. These notions will be
described in the next section.

Annihilationism and Eternalism

There is a story of a would-be follower who encounters the Buddha


and interprets his teaching of No Self as follows: he understands the
Buddha to be saying that the self is destroyed at death and is not reborn.
The Buddha responds strongly, asserting that this is not what he has
been teaching. He says there is no self that continues on after death, but
also that there is no self that comes to an end at death. Both of these
views presume a real basis for numerical identity, rather than a conventional or linguistic basis. That is, both presume that the self is something
permanent: the one view holding that this permanence continues on
after death, and the other holding that the permanence of self lasts for a
lifetime and then comes to a prompt end at death. The Buddha asserts
that he denies the common assumption of both: a permanent self of any
significant duration, whether for a finite life or an everlasting life.
These are the positions of annihilationism and eternalism respectively.
Annihilationism holds that there is a self, permanent and independent of
the ever-changing aggregates, that comes to an end at death. Eternalism
holds that there is a self, again permanent and independent of the everchanging aggregates, that continues on after death.1

1 In the Sabbasava Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya I 8, p. 93, the Buddha describes


eternalism: This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views,
the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views,
the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary
person is not freed from suffering, I say. Also see the Alagaddupama
Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya I 137-38, pp. 230-31.

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At first, these two possibilities may seem exhaustive: either something


comes to an end, or it doesnt. Either it dies, or it doesnt. One of these
two views is held by most people: either I end at death or some part of
me something that is essential to me and is what I primarily mean by
I, something we may perhaps call a soul continues on after death even
though my body may come to an end.
For the Buddha, however, these are not exhaustive possibilities.
Something cant come to an end if it is not there to end. All that there
is to the self, in the Buddhist view, are the ever-changing aggregates:
bodily and psychological states. While we make statements of numerical
identity, of being the same self over time, there is no actual sameness,
no identity in the strict sense, in the Buddhist view. And so, if there is
no sameness, there is no sameness to continue on after death or to end
at death.
How we think of the self is closely tied to how we may think of
death, for death raises the prospect of the end of this self. The Buddhist
view of self here is supposed to affect ones attitude towards death.
Non-Buddhists usually hold either annihilationism or eternalism. The
Buddhas rejection of both these approaches is an example of the Buddhas
treading a Middle Way. The Middle Way, in this case as it is elsewhere, is
not a literal midpoint, for there can be no midpoint between a finite life
and an everlasting or infinite life. Its perhaps better called a third way,
rejecting what both diverging views presuppose: something unchanging
or permanent something that remains numerically identical whether
it be for a fixed duration or an unfixed duration. In the Buddhist view,
death is not the kind of end we tend to think it is, but not because I will
continue on after death in some essential capacity. It is because there is
no I that has remained through a life and that is coming to an end. There
is no self that remains constant, from moment to moment, through
change after change, and so no such self whose demise is threatened. The
difficulty of facing death is thus transmuted to the difficulty of facing
what one is: one is not a permanent being over time, says the Buddha,
but there is a strong psychological identification with being a permanent
being, and it is this identification that needs to be faced and dealt with.

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So what does the Buddha respond with then, if he is saying there is


no permanence over time? What connects me to my past and what do I
project to in thinking of my future? The Buddhas answer is that there is
continuity, specifically causal continuity, and that this is different from
permanence or identity over time. This will be discussed in the next
chapter on Dependent Origination, and continued in the chapter following that on Karma and Rebirth.

Concluding Remarks

According to the doctrine of Impermanence, the aggregates are observed


to arise and pass. But what, we might wonder, happens in between arising
and passing? An aggregate may be changing in other ways while it is in
the minds attention, in-between its arising and passing, but as explained
above, these other ways of undergoing change are not the sense of impermanence in the doctrine of Impermanence. The sense of impermanence
in the doctrine of Impermanence involves arising and passing. An aggregate arises and passes, but in-between these it has a continuing existence.
This means that the period of time in-between the arising and passing of
an aggregate is a period of time with permanence. Consider, for example,
a perception. A perception may arise and then pass from our attention, but
it also remains for a time, even if only for a very brief time. Not to have
some duration between the arising and passing of the perception is not to
have time to register the occurrence of the perception; it is, in fact, not
to have time for there to be a perception. And this is just what a mindful observance of the aggregates reveals: aggregates arise in our minds
awareness, they remain for some time, sometimes very briefly, and then
they recede from our awareness. This period between arising and passing
is a period of permanence in the specific sense that there is no arising and
passing during this interim. This would seem to be permanence in the
midst of the impermanence of the aggregates.
As to precisely what this duration of permanence between the arising
and passing of the aggregates is, that is another matter, and not easily

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settled or without ambiguity. As explained, what does seem clear is that


there should be some positive duration. The briefly subsisting constituents of the aggregates are called dharmas (not to be confused with the
Dharma, the truths and doctrines of the Buddha). Specific positions
on dharmas and their durations were promoted by the Sarvastivadans
and other Buddhist schools associated with the Abhidharma canon and
tradition. The world we experience is supposed to be constituted by
dharmas, and these dharmas were thought by some schools to have very
brief durations (although different schools had differing views on this;
the Sautrantikas, for instance, held that dharmas have no durations). The
question of the duration between arising and passing will be revisited in
Chapter Twelve, wherein the Abhidharma tradition, and the nature and
duration of dharmas, will be discussed.
Lastly, it should be emphasized that the doctrine of Impermanence
is not intended primarily for descriptive purposes, but to be of use in
overcoming suffering. Reminders of impermanence are supposed to
help staunch cravings for permanence. This practical application of
Impermanence is to extend to whatever we may become attached to and
crave, whether this be objects, feelings, persons, or even the teachings of
the Buddha. Specifically, the idea is to look carefully at the aggregates
and see that they are subject to arising and passing, with a succession
similar in its rapidity to monkeys swinging on branches and vines. The
result of this attentive looking is not only supposed to let one see that the
attachment to a permanent self is unfounded, but also looking carefully
at the aggregates is supposed to take some steps towards realizing this.
As with the doctrine of No Self, a mindful awareness of the aggregates
is supposed to lead not only to the conclusion of Impermanence, but to
help sunder ones attachment to a permanent self. It is a strategy for overcoming attachment to permanence to carefully observe that whatever
one may be attached to is impermanent and will not last. To observe
the aggregates attentively is supposed to allow one to see the truth of
Impermanence and No Self for oneself, but is also supposed to help one
put in practice and realize these doctrines as well.

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X
The Doctrine of Dependent
Origination

Introduction

Th e doct r i n e of I m pe r m a n e nce asserts that the aggregates


arise and pass. Sensations, perceptions, bodily feelings, desires, hopes,
acts of will, states of awareness, and much more, arise and pass from
our conscious minds. The doctrine of No Self builds on the doctrine
of Impermanence and asserts that among these arising and passing
aggregates, no permanent self is found. As no permanent self is found, our
psychological attachment to a permanent self is held to be ungrounded.
The doctrine of Dependent Origination, like the doctrine of No Self,
builds upon the doctrine of Impermanence and adds that the arising and
passing aggregates are caused to arise, and caused to pass. Furthermore,
events that are caused to arise such as psychological attachments and
cravings can be undone by undoing their causes. The doctrine of
Dependent Origination is about causality and causal interconnection.
This understanding of causality, we should recall, is also found in
the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths assert that suffering
147

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exists; it has a cause; it can be eliminated by eliminating its cause; and


the means to this elimination lie in following the Middle Way and the
Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths offer a causal analysis of
suffering and in doing so are consistent with the doctrine of Dependent
Origination. Since suffering is held to be caused by attachment to self,
the way to overcome suffering for the Buddhist is to bring to mind and
then undo the causes of this attachment by following the Middle Way
and the Noble Eightfold Path. We are held to be creatures who, by and
large, do not understand the causes of our suffering well: we find ourselves with attachments, in particular to the sense of being a permanent
and independent self, without recognizing how this came about. An
understanding of causes, which is an understanding of origins, is consequently of great importance in Buddhism. It is traditionally asserted
that a direct understanding of Dependent Origination was integral to
the Buddhas enlightenment. Understanding Dependent Origination is
held to be essential to understanding suffering in the Buddhist sense and
the means for overcoming it. It is also described as subtle, profound, and
difficult to understand. An exchange between Ananda, a disciple, and
the Buddha is recounted as follows:
the Venerable Ananda came to the Lord, saluted him, sat down
to one side, and said: It is wonderful, Lord, it is marvellous how
profound this dependent origination is, and how profound it
appears! And yet it appears to me as clear as clear!. Do not say
that, Ananda, do not say that! This dependent origination is profound and appears profound. It is through not understanding, not
penetrating this doctrine that this generation has become like a
tangled ball of string, covered with a blight, tangled like coarse
grass, unable to pass beyond states of woe, the ill destiny, ruin and
the round of birth-and-death.1
Sariputra, a close disciple of the Buddha, in speaking of the teachings
of the Buddha (the Dharma, or Dhamma in Pali) is reported to have
1
Mahanidana Sutta, Digha Nikaya II 55, p. 223.

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said this: Now this has been said by the Blessed One: One who sees
dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma
sees dependent origination.1
Dependent Origination is sometimes called conditioned arising or
interdependent arising. Herein, we use the phrasing dependent origination. As described, properly understanding Dependent Origination is
important for understanding the Noble Truths and the path to freedom
from suffering. This emphasis on causality and a causal understanding
of suffering is also displayed with the Wheel of Becoming (which was
presented in Chapter Six). On its outer rim, there is a series of causally related events that describe the cycle of birth and rebirth and the
conditions of perpetual suffering. The Buddha describes the causal links
between these elements: With clinging as a condition, being; with being
as a condition, birth; with birth as a condition, aging and death come
to be, and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair. That is
how there is an origin to this whole aggregate mass of suffering.2 In the
interior core of the wheel there are deeper set causes that keep the whole
wheel in motion: craving, volition, and aversion or hatred. This core
presents a further level of causal analysis (for while birth leads to aging,
which leads to sickness, etc., on the outer rim, the whole cycle is kept
in motion with the forces of the core). The symbolism of the Wheel of
Becoming presents not merely the cyclical nature of Samsara and suffering, but the causal and mechanical workings of the wheel. An analysis of
suffering through an analysis of its causes, provided in the Four Noble
Truths and the Wheel of Becoming, has a clear practical agenda. Indeed,
a deeply theoretical understanding of the nature of ones suffering is not
said to be needed. But an understanding of the causes of ones suffering,
and of what is required to eliminate these causes, certainly is needed.
Despite seeming straightforward, the quotations given above convey
that understanding Dependent Origination and the nature of causal connection is a subtle and far from simple matter. Dependent Origination,
as with the doctrines of No Self and Impermanence, applies to the
1
Mahahatthipadopama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, I 191, p. 284.
2 From Nanamoli (1992) 251 ff., as quoted in Williams (2000), p. 65.

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aggregates. However, Dependent Origination includes more than the


aggregates in attending to causes. The aggregates bodily processes,
sensations, perceptions, intentional and volitional activity, and consciousness may be caused by, and in turn cause, external events that
are not themselves aggregates. For instance, a tree in ones direct line
of sight may cause a perception of the tree; a physical blow may cause
a bodily injury and feelings of pain. In these examples, the tree and
the physical blow are not aggregates; they are external objects or events
that are causally connected to aggregates (they cause the perception of
the tree and the feelings of pain respectively). The causal connectivity
that is the focus of Dependent Origination connects the aggregates to
causes and effects that are external and not themselves aggregates. This
is a dissimilarity between Dependent Origination and the doctrines of
Impermanence and No Self (which concern the aggregates more exclusively). This impacts the question of how causality is to be understood
in this doctrine for it allows for different possibilities to be considered.
One way to conceive of causality in Dependent Origination is the way
we tend to think of causal relations between external physical events;
we will call this physical causation. A second is the way we generally
describe causal relations between mental occurrences; this will be called
mental causation and it will be seen to have different characteristics
from physical causation.
In order to understand causality in the doctrine of Dependent
Origination, what will be called Universal Causation is of importance.
This is the position that every event has a cause. Since a cause is itself
an event, this position implies that every cause has a cause. Thus, under
universal causation, there are no uncaused causes; there are no first
causes that are not themselves caused. Considering whether or not the
doctrine of Dependent Origination includes universal causation is vital
for coming to understand the doctrine. Answering this question will
involve distinguishing between the concepts of an uncaused cause versus
a beginning cause. This will be discussed, and it will be shown that
Dependent Origination does entail universal causation.
Altogether three different models of causation will be considered to
see if they are appropriate for understanding causality in the doctrine

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of Dependent Origination. The first to be considered will be physical


causation and this will be presumed to involve universal causation; the
second will be mental causation without universal causation; and the
third, mental causation with universal causation. The third model will
be shown to be the most fitting for appreciating the sense of causality
in Dependent Origination, and the Buddhist objectives of overcoming suffering and attachment to self. As noted, the Buddha asserts that
Dependent Origination is a subtle and difficult doctrine. It is worth
going carefully over the first two models so that we can appreciate their
difficulties, and thereby see more clearly why the third model is favoured.

The First Model: Physical Causation

Causation between physical events is the conception of causation with


which we are most familiar. Typically, physical causation does not
admit uncaused events. An uncaused event in our physical surroundings would involve something coming about, spontaneously and without
cause, from apparently nothing. An uncaused event would be difficult to
make intelligible, with no scientific explanation (at least insofar as this
involves explaining by providing causes). Physical causation, in addition
to admitting universal causation, also admits causal determinism. Causal
determinism is the position that an effect is fully determined by its antecedent cause(s) (together with the operation of the laws of nature). This
means that if you have full knowledge of the antecedent cause(s), plus the
relevant laws of nature and conditions in which those causes exist, then
you could, in theory, accurately predict the effect(s). As a consequence of
causal determinism, changes to causal sequences are not possible (since all
effects are fully determined and thus necessitated). Universal causation,
it is worth making clear, holds that all events are caused, but this does
not by itself imply that causal sequences are determined and unchangeable (i.e., universal causation does not imply causal determinism).1

1 It might be thought that a challenge for both universal causation and causal
determinism arises with evidence from quantum mechanics, (continued)

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Let us now consider whether Physical Causation thus described


is an appropriate model of causation for understanding Dependent
Origination. Dependent Origination holds that there are causal connections between the aggregates, and that these causal connections allow us
to follow our thoughts and feelings backwards to underlying causes, and
also to follow forward and predict effects from their causes.
This causal reasoning is important for making the changes needed
for overcoming suffering. The idea is that if we find ourselves with a
suffering-inducing craving, by working back to its cause we can remove
ourselves from the craving. Likewise, if we can predict that certain causes
will induce suffered effects, then we know that we should avoid these
causes. But as noted, physical causation presumes causal determinism,
and this does not allow for changes to be made to causal sequences so that
suffered effects can thereby be eliminated. To elaborate, the doctrine of
Dependent Origination holds not only that our feelings and attachments
and other mental states have causes, but that we can alter these mental
states by changing or disrupting the underlying causes that lead to them.
Changing causes so as to change the effects that follow is integral to following the Buddhist path. Since causal determinism does not allow for
for this suggests the possibility of randomly appearing and presumably
uncaused events. Insofar as there are truly random events, this argues against
causal determinism. And insofar as these events are genuinely uncaused, this
argues against universal causation. Nevertheless, the controversial possibility
of quantum indeterminism is not being considered in discussing physical
causation here. The focus of physical causation herein is causation as it is
presumed to occur in our physical macro-environment (where all events do
appear to be caused and where, at least in theory, a full knowledge of causes,
including relevant laws, forces, and other environmental factors, enables
accurate predictions of effects). What is under consideration is whether
this understanding of physical causation is appropriate for understanding
Dependent Origination. Also, it can be said that quantum indeterminism
is inappropriate for understanding the sense of causation in Dependent
Origination since uncaused or random effects are not effects that can be
eliminated by eliminating their causes, as the Third Noble Truth requires.
And most simply, quantum indeterminism is not appropriate for understanding the intended sense of causality in Dependent Origination since
the Buddha would have been unaware of this from the empiricist methods
available to him.

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such changes (i.e., since it holds that all effects are determined and necessitated by their causes), physical causation is not an appropriate model for
understanding causality in Dependent Origination.
The Second Noble Truth asserts that suffering is caused. The Third
Noble Truth asserts that suffering can be eliminated by eliminating its
causes. The Fourth Noble Truth asserts that these suffering-inducing
causes can be eliminated by following the Middle Way and disciplining
ones mind and conduct according to the Noble Eightfold Path. We are
supposed to be able to bring about an end to suffering through our own
efforts. These Truths presume that we can change causal sequences. They
presume that we can bring about changes to ourselves our personalities
and attachments through a disciplining of body, mind and conduct
so as to redirect the causal sequences that currently lead to attachment
and suffering. Eliminating underlying, suffering-inducing causes implies
that causal determinism does not hold and, once again, this conveys that
physical causation is not the appropriate model for interpreting causality
in Dependent Origination.1
In addition, the aggregates are described (in the Noble Truths and the
Wheel of Becoming) primarily in mental terms and not physical terms.
For instance, in asserting that cravings cause suffering and must be overcome it is not asserted that specific brain patterns must be overcome.
This is not to imply that cravings do not involve specific brain events,
but just that the description of the cause of suffering is in terms of mental
states, and not the underlying neurophysiological states. This is another
reason for saying that physical causation is not the right model for understanding causality in Dependent Origination. To further elaborate, the
objective of Dependent Origination, as with any Buddhist doctrine,
is ultimately to overcome suffering. As suffering involves craving and
attachment to self, Dependent Origination is thus at the service of overcoming craving and attachment to self. These cravings and attachments

1 It is presumed here that a compatibilist interpretation, according to which


ones apparently free choice to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, while
not compelled upon one, is a determined choice that could not have been
otherwise, is not appropriate for understanding the Buddhas doctrine.

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are mental events, and are described as such. This gives a further reason
for saying the conception of causality in Dependent Origination should
not be based on the model of physical causation, extended to include
mental events, but should be one whose primary focus is the causal connections between mental events. Rupert Gethin raises this very concern:
Buddhist thought does not understand causality in terms similar to,
say, Newtonian mechanics, where billiard balls rebound off each
other in an entirely predictable manner once the relevant information is gathered. First, the Buddhist attempt to understand the ways
of causal conditioning is concerned primarily with the workings of
the mind: the way in which things we think, say, and do have an
effect on both our selves and others. Second, Buddhist thought sees
causal conditioning as involving the interaction of certain fixed or
determined effects and certain free or unpredictable causes.1
Gethin raises two considerations here against physical causation, the
mechanical billiard ball conception of causality as he phrases it. It is
worth discussing both. Gethin mentions and this is his second point in
the above passage that in the Buddhist view causes can be unpredictable. Thoughts, cravings, etc., can pop into our minds unpredictably.
Billiard Ball causation, or causation in line with Newtonian mechanics, does not admit of unpredictability (in principle, in any case). On a
Newtonian model of causation, if sufficient relevant information is
available, then effects should be fully predictable. Oftentimes, the relevant information that must be in hand and processed is immense, and this
makes prediction difficult in practice. This is the case with accurate longrange weather predictions, for instance. But the principal point remains

1 Gethin (1998), pp. 153-54. Also see Williams: What marked out the
Buddhas approach to this topic, in contrast to his fellow sramanas [ascetics], was his psychologising. Trsna [craving] is a matter of the mind, and
therefore trsna [craving] is eliminated not by fierce asceticism, torturing the
body, but by mental transformation through meditation. For the Buddhist
it is the mental factor which is crucial. Liberation is all about the mind.
Williams (2000), p. 45.

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that were this vast amount of information in hand and well-understood


and analysed, an accurate prediction could be made. Mechanical billiard ball causation involves causal determinism. Gethin is correct to
note that causality in the Buddhist conception does not involve causal
determinism, or a billiard ball model, and this was explained above.
However, while causal determinism is at odds with a Buddhist
understanding of causation, predictable causation is still essential in
Buddhism and it is important to draw this out. The value of Dependent
Origination in overcoming suffering requires being able to determine
which causes lead to suffered states, and the reliability of this procedure
requires being able to make reliable predictions from causes to effects
(and reliable judgements from effects back to their causes). Indeed, the
value of causal thinking (in Dependent Origination and the Noble
Truths) is directly proportional to the predictability of suffered effects
given suffering-inducing causes (for it is this predictability that informs
us of which causes to eliminate). Predictability is an important part of
the understanding of causality in Dependent Origination, even if this
is not to a Newtonian degree of necessitation. The degree of predictability is not the same, and it could not be since Dependent Origination
applies to the aggregates and these are not observable and measurable in
the same way as external physical objects and events are. Still, the value
of Dependent Origination in overcoming suffering lies in a predictable
causal connection between causes and effects. Predictable causality without determinism may be difficult to fathom, and this is one of the things
that makes Dependent Origination a difficult or subtle doctrine. But
it is worth pointing out that this is just what we see when we observe
ourselves from a first person perspective: we can observe that there is a
predictable, but not a necessary, relation between certain mental events
and others (e.g., dwelling on a frustrating event and getting angry); and
we can also observe that we can, perhaps with much effort, make changes
to the underlying causes so as to overcome the predictable effects. It is
always worth remembering, in coming to understand these Buddhist
doctrines, that they are based on an empiricism that we are all supposed
to be able to carry out by looking carefully at ourselves.

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Gethin further states, in the above passage, that causal conditioning


is concerned primarily with the workings of the mind. This also is
correct. Dependent Origination, just as No Self and Impermanence, is a
doctrine about the aggregates. And the aggregates are primarily mental
contents. As noted earlier, the aggregates can have causes and effects that
are external and physical, and this means that causality in Dependent
Origination cannot just include mental states. Nevertheless, it remains
correct to say that Dependent Origination mainly concerns occurrences
in the mind. Also, the objective is to overcome attachment to self and
craving which are psychological states in the mind. As already noted,
this focus on the workings of the mind should lead us to think that
physical causation is not the right model for understanding causality in
Dependent Origination.

The Second Model: Mental Causation without Universal Causation

The second model to be discussed, in order to see if it provides an appropriate understanding of causality in Dependent Origination, will be
called mental causation without universal causation. Mental causation
is often a matter of giving reasons as causes. To illustrate, I may describe
my getting up and going to the fridge for some cake as being caused by
certain patterns of neuronal activity, which led to muscle movements,
which led to the movement of my limbs, which led my body all the
way to the fridge. This is a description in terms of physical causation.
Alternatively, I may say that my desire for cake, plus my belief that it was
in the fridge, plus a lack of interfering beliefs and desires (such as a desire
to remain on a diet) led me to go to the fridge. Or more simply, I went
to the fridge because I wanted cake. Stating my desire for cake gives a
reason explaining why I went to the fridge, but it is also quite right to
say this desire caused me to go to the fridge.1 After all, if I find myself at
the fridge wondering why I am there, I can easily trace back to my desire

1 See Donald Davidsons Mental Events in Davidson (2001).

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for cake and this desire is both a reason and a cause for my behaviour.
The point here is not that mental events are not also physical events in
the brain, but rather that a causal description involving mental events,
which can employ reasons as causes, can be quite unlike a description in
terms of physical causes.
This type of explanation that is, one that explains behaviour by
appealing to thoughts, desires, and other psychological states is sometimes called a folk psychological explanation. It is so called because it is
the kind of psychological explanation that we folk commonly use in
our attempts to understand the minds and behaviours of others as well as
of ourselves. For instance, I may explain why someone screamed when
he saw a tarantula by saying he was scared, and I might explain my own
behaviour, to myself and to others, in the same way. Folk psychological
analyses involve explaining our behaviour and minds by finding causes
in our psychological states rather than in underlying physical states. In
this respect, the Buddha is also thinking folk psychologically for he is
asking us to find the causes of our suffering in our mental states, specifically in our attachments and cravings. The Buddhas observation of the
aggregates involves introspection, and this is a first-person observation
of the minds contents which are described in mental terms, and not a
third-person observation of underlying neurophysiological states.
This model of mental causation, unlike the next one to be considered,
does not involve universal causation. A reason for this is that looking at
ourselves from a first-person view can convey that there are uncaused
events. For instance, thoughts and actions that are willed can strike us
as having no cause prior to their assertion in our will. That is, it seems
that we can bring certain events about for instance, decisions, bodily
movements by willing them to be and that this willing is an initiating
cause that doesnt need a further cause behind it. Our acts of will can
seem to us to be uncaused events, the starting points of causal sequences.
Hand in hand with this is the idea that we are the authors of our intentions and actions and that there need be no further causes that lie behind
and that fully cause our will and authorship. Our willing, it seems, can
be an uncaused cause. Also, we are accustomed to thoughts and ideas

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popping into our minds from seemingly nowhere. This is not to say that
a thought that just pops into your head does not have a physical cause
(such as a neuronal event), but it is to say that, from a first-person point
of view, the thought may appear to arise without a cause. Whether we
are speaking of mental events that just seem to pop into our attention, or
that seem willed into existence, it appears that mental events, observed
as mental events and not in terms of their neuronal underpinnings, can
be uncaused events. These are reasons for thinking mental causation
does not admit universal causation.
The possibility of uncaused mental events, and the denial of universal
causation this involves, presents a problem for Buddhism. Simply put, if
suffering can come about uncaused, it cannot be eliminated by eliminating its causes as the Third Noble Truth requires. While uncaused causes
present a problem, beginning causes do not. In fact, they are required for
following the Buddhist path. This distinction between uncaused causes
and beginning causes warrants close attention. Consider the example of
getting angry. Suppose I determine that the cause of this was an insult,
and the feelings of hurt, indignation, and damaged self-esteem this
caused. Perhaps there is still more to the anger than just this. Perhaps
there is more to trace back to, of which I may not be aware (and perhaps
a therapist or specialist could help me trace back these causes further).
But this would just be to find the beginning or precipitating causes I
will use these terms interchangeably somewhere else, a layer or two
deeper. The search for mental causes is a search for reasons (in this case,
reasons for being angry), and the provision of reasons must come to an
end. That is, giving reasons only works if this stops somewhere. For to
trace back reasons indefinitely is not to give a satisfactory reason at all;
the giving of reasons as causes has to end, which is to say it has to have
a beginning point.1 The Third Noble Truth attests that suffering can be
eliminated by eliminating its causes. Eliminating causes requires that
the precipitating causes of our suffering exist and be identifiable. If the

1 Appealing to physical causes in giving reasons must also involve coming to


beginning causes (for as noted, no causal analysis that tries to find reasons
can continue on indefinitely).

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precipitating causes of suffering are not eliminated, then suffering can


continue to arise anew. Admitting beginning or precipitating causes is
important for understanding causality in Dependent Origination.
While admitting beginning or precipitating causes is important,
admitting uncaused causes must be avoided. As noted above, if suffering
can come about uncaused, then it cannot be eliminated by eliminating its
causes. The Third Noble Truth, and thus Dependent Origination as well
(for this doctrine is to be read as being in accord with the Third Noble
Truth) require that there be beginning causes that are not uncaused
causes. This means that a beginning cause must itself have a cause and yet
still remain a beginning cause. To say the least, this shows that Dependent
Origination, and the sense of causality it involves, is not a simple notion,
as the Buddha himself attested. This issue of beginning causes that
are not uncaused causes will be elaborated in the next section. What
remains in this section is to draw out further the difficulty with accepting
this second model mental causation without universal causation.
One problem with denying universal causation, already noted, is that
an uncaused cause violates the Third Noble Truth. An uncaused event
cannot be eliminated by eliminating its cause for it has none. Indeed,
it does not seem eliminable at all for if it has no cause, it can just come
about again, uncaused. Another problem has to do with what would be
readily presumed to be the uncaused source of our intentional behaviour
and acts of will: the self. This is a self that is presumed to lie behind our
will and our choices and is their ultimate source. For instance, if I am
feeling envious and decide to stop feeling envious, the source of this
decision to stop, to my mind, may seem to be my self. There may be
good reasons to stop feeling envious, which may or may not affect my
decision, but the causal impetus for the decision may still strike me as
ultimately coming from my will, and thus from me. The self seems to be
able to initiate causal sequences without being fully caused itself. That
is, it seems to be able to be an uncaused cause. This is a further problem
with this second model.
To further elaborate, following the Noble Eightfold Path to the
eradication of suffering requires making personality changes. We may

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ask from where does the impetus for these changes arise? The power to
effect personality change must, it seems, reside somewhere, or arise from
somewhere, and an obvious reply is from ones will and thus, it would
seem, from ones self. Initiating change requires initiating new causal
sequences to replace emplaced causal sequences. The difficulty here concerns how to conceive of making changes to oneself without thinking
that they are being initiated by an independent self. The idea that there
exists a self that has the power to effect changes among the aggregates
such as turning unwholesome thoughts into wholesome ones through
the sheer power of its will while also remaining independent of the
aggregates is the idea that there is a self who is an independent controller
and causal agent. This view of self was challenged in the Argument from
Lack of Control in Chapter Eight. An uncaused cause is a cause that
carries its own power to effect change and control; it is causally unconditioned. A self that can initiate causal sequences through an act of will;
that can cause effects without itself being causally affected; that can exert
control over the aggregates while existing independently of the causal
interconnections between the aggregates, is an uncaused cause. This is
a concept of self that the Buddha finds at the root of suffering. The
second model, because it admits uncaused causes, and allows for a self to
serve in the role of uncaused cause, is inappropriate for understanding
the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination.
Beginning causes are required for correctly appreciating causation
in Buddhism (for it is the beginning or precipitating causes that must
be eliminated if suffering is to be eliminated). But uncaused causes, for
reasons given, cannot be admitted. As described, this second model,
because it rejects universal causation and thus admits uncaused events,
is not appropriate for understanding Dependent Origination. Thinking
in terms of mental causation is still appropriate and the right way to
proceed, as the cravings and attachments that cause suffering are conceived in mental terms. However, mental causation must be interpreted
in a way that admits universal causation; and this means that it must not
admit uncaused causes, while, at the same time, it must admit beginning
or precipitating causes. Beginning causes that are not uncaused causes

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will be explained in the next section, in its discussion of a third model.


This discussion will emphasize the importance of a careful empirical
observation of the aggregates which, of course, is the Buddhas prescribed methodology.

The Third Model: Mental Causation with Universal Causation

We have so far considered models for physical causation, and mental


causation without universal causation, in trying to come to an understanding of causality in Dependent Origination. The physical causation
model is causation as we observe between physical events.1 This model
was deemed inadequate for understanding causation in Dependent
Origination for two reasons. One, the usefulness of looking to causes in
overcoming suffering requires a predictable connection between causes
and their effects, but not a deterministic causation (for changes must
be able to be made to causal sequences if the causes of suffering are to
be eliminated). Two, Dependent Origination is concerned with mental
phenomena (for to speak of overcoming cravings and attachments is to
speak in terms of observable contents in the mind and not of the neuronal underpinnings of these states in the brain).
The next model considered was called mental causation without universal causation. This model contrasted with physical causation. Mental
causation is not deterministic, and this model of mental causation rejects
universal causation and admits uncaused causes. This model of causation is also not appropriate for understanding Dependent Origination. In
admitting uncaused events this model is at odds with the Third Noble
Truth (which requires that suffering be eliminated by eliminating its
causes). Furthermore, in admitting uncaused causes it allows for the self
to be the uncaused cause (i.e., this model is consistent with the view that
the self can exert control over the aggregates while also being causally
unaffected and independent of the aggregates).

1 Although note that for Hume, it is a contiguity of events, and not specifically causation between events, that is observed.

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The third model of causation is an alternative approach to mental


causation: mental causation with universal causation (and thus without
uncaused causes). While this third model does not admit uncaused
causes, it does admit beginning or precipitating causes (and again,
these terms are being used synonymously). If causality in Dependent
Origination is to be correctly appreciated, then it must admit beginning
causes (because it is the beginning or precipitating cause of suffering that
must be eliminated if suffering is to be eliminated). To illustrate, suppose I trace a feeling of anger back to a feeling of damaged self-esteem.
If the anger is to be overcome, then this beginning cause must be dealt
with (i.e., the feeling of damaged self-esteem must be amended so that
it no longer leads to anger). However, if this beginning cause is also an
uncaused cause, then this raises a problem with following the Buddhist
path; following this path requires eliminating suffering-inducing causes
but a cause that itself has no cause does not seem eliminable. The understanding of causality in the doctrine of Dependent Origination, and also
in the Noble Truths, must admit beginning causes but not uncaused
causes. This will be discussed in this section. The next section, which
focusses on the importance of universal causation in understanding
Dependent Origination, will offer further elaboration.
The doctrine of Dependent Origination, as with No Self and
Impermanence, is based on a careful observation of the aggregates. When
we carefully observe the aggregates, we observe that they do not simply arise, but that they are caused to arise. Also, our observation of the
aggregates and their precipitating causes only extends back so far. That
is, we always come to a beginning point when we look carefully at a
causal sequence. We may, with more diligent observation, notice a further underlying cause, but we still reach a point where we discern no
further. This is to observe a beginning cause but it is not, strictly speaking, to observe an uncaused cause. To illustrate how a beginning cause
need not be an uncaused cause, consider this example. I observe a vase fall
off a table upon being nudged by my cat. The causal sequence that ends
with the broken vase begins with the nudging. But that is not to say that
the nudging was an uncaused event (it had its own antecedent causes, in

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the cats brain perhaps, or in the sequence of events that led the cat to be
near the vase, and these had their antecedent causes, and so on). We can
go back indefinitely in uncovering further antecedent causes, but this will
not help in getting to a beginning cause. Indeed, going back indefinitely,
uncovering cause upon cause, means that we will not arrive at a beginning cause. Instead, it is perfectly reasonable to say that the fallen vase
was caused by the cats nudging, and not attend to any further antecedent
causes. The cats nudging was a beginning cause; it is a sufficient reason,
for our intents and purposes, but not an uncaused cause. Likewise, causal
sequences that manifest in suffering may be found to have beginnings,
but these beginning causes need not be uncaused beginnings (just as the
beginning of a tree branch is not an unattached beginning). Thus, the
observation of beginning causes does not indicate that these are uncaused
causes, and thus does not imply that universal causation is false.
In addition, looking carefully at the aggregates, we can note that we
do not observe a permanent and independent self (this observation, to
remind, is the gist of the Argument from the Aggregates for No Self ). If
no permanent and independent self is observed, then it follows that there
is no such self observed who is the source of causal sequences. We may
presume, judge, or believe there to be such a self but we do not observe
causal sequences beginning in a self. Insofar as we continue to believe that
there is such a self, serving as an originating source of causal sequences,
then Dependent Origination presses us to observe more closely and see
for ourselves that causal connections among the aggregates do not
begin in a permanent and independent self. The rejection of self as an
uncaused cause of actions does not imply a rejection of free will so much
as a rejection of a freely willing agent lying behind our actions. Again,
sticking to what we observe, we can introspectively observe willings
and intentions, but no self that is doing the willing or intending. And so
the observational method employed by the Buddha does not repudiate
willings, or acts of will (and in fact, these are included in the aggregate
of intentional and volitional activity). If we insist that acts of will and
intentions originate in a self then, in the Buddhist view, that is due to
our attachment to this position, and is not based upon what is empirically

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observed. In addition, the observation of the aggregates and their causes


does not support causal determinism. We do observe a predictable relationship between certain precipitating causes and certain effects (e.g., we
may find that feelings of anger or desire are predictably set off by specific
causes). But given that we also observe that changes can be made to causal
sequences, a predictable relationship between causes and effects does not
betoken a necessary or unchangeable relationship. A careful observation
of the aggregates yields a picture of causation in which there is a predictable relationship between causes and effects, but not a deterministic
one; and in which there are beginning causes, but not uncaused causes,
and specifically no self that is an uncaused cause. These are all aspects of
causality in Dependent Origination and are captured by this third model:
mental causation with universal causation. It is worth further elaborating
upon the importance of universal causation in understanding Dependent
Origination, and this will be the concern of the next section.

The Importance of Universal Causation

The Second Noble Truth asserts that suffering is caused, and the Third
Noble Truth that these causes can be eliminated. Jointly these convey
that while universal causation is true (i.e., all events are caused), causal
determinism is not (i.e., casual sequences are not determined and hence
can be altered). It is notable that these Noble Truths are not stated in
universal terms even though they appear to be making universal claims.
The Buddha carefully avoided speaking in universal terms about causality
and also in general. For instance, reminiscent of the presentation of
suffering in the First Noble Truth (in which he asserts only that there
is suffering and not a universal statement such as all is suffering), he
asserts the following in the Nidanasamyutta (Connected Discourses on
Causation): Thus when this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of
this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with
the cessation of this, that ceases.1 It may be thought that this phrasing
1
Nidanasamyutta, Samyutta Nikaya II 28, p. 552.

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conveys that the doctrine of Dependent Origination does not hold that
every event is caused, and thus does not claim universal causation. Indeed,
we may think that the use of demonstratives in the above passage the
expressions this and that indicates that the Buddha intends to refer to
only particular events as being caused, rather than to all events or events
generally. However, there are good reasons to reject this.
For starters, the Buddha does speak in general terms in describing
Dependent Origination. For instance, when this exists, that comes to
be should be read to say whenever this exists, that comes to be. More
than this, the value of Dependent Origination in helping to understand
the underlying causes of ones intentions and actions, and in helping to
overcome suffering, resides in its generality. The value of looking for
underlying causes for unwholesome thoughts and actions requires that
there be such underlying causes, and that we be able to expect such
causes. When the Buddhist is directed to observe the workings of the
aggregates, he is being directed to pay attention to the underlying causes.
This means that a feeling, thought or action that appears uncaused should
be viewed as a feeling, thought or action for which we have not yet been
able to locate a cause. The presence of a genuine uncaused event would
be a gap in the scope of Dependent Origination and, as explained, an
obstacle to the implementation of the Third Noble Truth. The Second
and Third Noble Truths, in saying respectively that suffering is caused
by craving and can be eliminated by eliminating craving, are not saying
that suffering is sometimes caused by craving, and can sometimes be
eliminated by eliminating craving. Their force resides in their generality. That is, the Second Noble Truth, in asserting that suffering is caused
by craving, asserts a universal causal claim: all suffering is caused by
craving. All suffering is caused, and this is what enables its elimination
according to the Third Noble Truth.
Still, we might wonder whether these causes must all have causes,
and whether these further causes must have causes, and so on (for this
is also the claim of universal causation: there are no uncaused events,
which means there are no uncaused causes). In response we may note
that if there is an uncaused cause somewhere down the line, and this
cause ultimately leads to suffering, then the suffering to which it leads

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does not seem eliminable (for if the cause is uncaused, then it cannot
be eliminated or even altered and so it can continue to lead to suffering
anew). If an event can arise without a cause, it is unclear how it can
be removed. And even if it is somehow removed, it should just be able
to arise again without a cause (for it needed no cause to arise initially)
and so once again lead to suffering. An uncaused cause that results in
suffering makes impossible the application of the Third Noble Truth
and raises a seemingly insuperable problem for the elimination of suffering. We can additionally question that if uncaused causes are admitted
down the line somewhere, why not just admit uncaused aggregates, or
uncaused cravings, as well? Once we admit the possibility of uncaused
events that can result in the arising of the aggregates we would be hard
pressed to explain why the aggregates themselves cannot be uncaused
events. This is in defiance of the doctrine of Dependent Origination and
the observations it is based on. Clearly, universal causation is integral to
understanding causality in the doctrine of Dependent Origination.
The Buddha observes that suffering is caused and undertakes a causal
analysis as the key to overcoming suffering. A useful causal analysis
requires that causal sequences be traced back to a beginning cause. That
is, an analysis in terms of causes, to be of use, requires that the analysis
be able to come to an end; and this means it must come to a beginning
cause. Again, this does not mean admitting uncaused causes or rejecting
universal causation. To offer another illustration, suppose I observe a
passing airplane frighten a group of birds off a telephone wire. In this
observation and analysis, the passing of the plane (and more specifically,
the sound and disturbance this causes) is the precipitating cause that led
to the birds flight. That does not mean that the chain of causes and
effects cannot be taken back further (for there are causes that led the
airplane to pass overhead, including time-tables and schedules, requirements for flight paths and ticket purchases, and there are physiological
causes that account for why the birds were affected by the planes noise,
and more causes besides these). But the analysis of the event may not gain
from tracing back further causes (e.g., tracing back to all the passengers
who bought tickets which consequently led to a plane being scheduled
on this flight path would add nothing to the causal analysis of the birds

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flight even though it would be a way of tracing the chain of causes and
effects back further). A causal analysis, as with any analysis, must have an
end point, and this is a beginning cause.
The primary focus with Dependent Origination, as with No Self
and Impermanence, is the aggregates. These aggregates, the Buddha
observed, are caused; they are part of causal sequences that can be traced
back to beginning causes. The aim of this observation is to be of practical value in overcoming suffering. As noted in the previous chapter,
the Buddha was not trying to be a physicist, or provide a scientific
description of the external world with the doctrine of Impermanence,
but rather to describe the aggregates and the sources of suffering in the
human condition. Likewise, Dependent Origination is not competing
with physical causation to be a scientifically true account of causality.
Instead, it is based primarily on inward observations of causal workings. Again, these observable causal workings involve predictable causal
connections, but not necessary ones; they involve beginning causes, but
not uncaused causes. Overcoming suffering is the objective and, as previously explained, this involves overcoming craving and attachment to
self. This attachment to self involves the idea that the self is an agent who
can initiate causal sequences; this is a self who can, through an act of will,
cause events to happen be this thinking thoughts, making choices, or
performing actions without there being a further cause apart from the
will of this self. This self is an uncaused cause. A self provides a ready
answer to the question of who initiated the causal sequence, or from
where it came. The idea of a self as a controller, author or initiator of
action and thought is a common aspect of our sense of self. The difficulty
of conceiving of how change can be enacted without its being initiated
by a self is, from the Buddhist view, a sign of the entrenchment of this
view of self. It is this aspect of self i.e., as something that exerts control
over the aggregates while existing independently of the aggregates that
the Argument from Lack of Control tries to confront. The Argument
from Lack of Control asserted that there was no such controlling self.
Dependent Origination likewise asserts that there can be no self that is
an originating source of control and causation for there are no uncaused
causes of the aggregates.

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The practical importance of maintaining that all events among the


aggregates have causes, and that these causes have causes, is not to fall into
the view that the self is the ultimate originating source of the aggregates.
Even if we are unable to determine the cause of an aggregate, the affirmation of universal causation means that the self will not be appealed to
as its uncaused cause. Indeed, this is something Dependent Origination
directs us to see for ourselves. That is, we are to come to see for ourselves,
by looking back to the causes of the aggregates, that these causes do not
originate in a self. Dependent Origination is thus supposed to help in
overcoming attachment to self by leading us to look for, and find, further
causes for our mental states beyond our attribution to self, which is to
show us that we can press beyond an attribution to self. We may find
beliefs, desires, thoughts, memories, and concerns about or for our self,
but no self that is their cause. The practice of Dependent Origination, and
its careful attention to causes, is thus an exercise in Mindfulness.
In sum, we may not be able to trace the causal histories of internal
mental events as far back as we can external physical events, or make
predictions of mental events as accurately as we can with physical events,
but this should not mean that mental events do not have causes, or that
it is causation only analogically. The aggregates, the Buddha observes,
have causes. And although Dependent Origination presses us to watch
for precipitating or beginning causes, these are not to be construed as
uncaused causes. To admit the possibility of uncaused causes is to admit a
notion commonly associated with a self in the sense of a controlling and
causing agent. Universal causation implies that the self is not an uncaused
cause. Paying close attention to causes, as Dependent Origination advises,
is supposed to allow us to observe this implication for ourselves.

Dependent Origination and Causal Continuity

As described in Chapter Eight, the doctrine of No Self allows for a


notion of self that, while not a permanent entity existing apart from the
aggregates, is a composite of the ever-changing aggregates. Causal connections between successive aggregates mean that this composite self can

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be causally continuous over time. A causally continuous composite self is


not to be equated with an unchanging self over time. Causal continuity
over time is not the same as sameness or identity over time. This distinction will be closely examined in the next chapter. But as the notion
of causal continuity over time draws upon the doctrine of Dependent
Origination, the discussion of this notion will begin here.
Consider the example of a leaf that gradually turns colour and then
falls from a tree to the ground. There is a causal continuity of events
conjoining the fallen, darkened and brittle leaf to the earlier supple, green
leaf attached to the tree. This causal continuity need presume no singular
substance or something unchanging and permanent across points in time.
We might respond that the genetic code of the leaf remains unchanged
from one state to another, but this genetic code describes the leaf as a
kind or type, rather than as a particular leaf. In addition to not being
something we overtly observe and base our judgements of sameness on,
this genetic code would not provide identity conditions for the particular
leaf (i.e., it would not explain why it is the same particular leaf as the one
that was once on the tree). There is nothing specific to the particular leaf
that remains unchanged in our observation of it as it changes colour and
texture and falls to the ground. We observe only causal continuity. The
causal continuity, though, may lead us to assert that the fallen leaf is the
same leaf as the one that was once on the tree. We may say this rather than
say the fallen leaf is continuous with the leaf that was once on the tree
(and it is also less awkward than to say this). But using the word same
rather than continuous should not imply an actual sameness over time.
This is supposed to be true of ourselves as well. As noted, Dependent
Origination asserts that there are causal connections between aggregates.
This allows for a self that is a composite of the ever-changing aggregates
to be causally continuous over time (based on the connections between
successive causes and effects). On the basis of this causal continuity, we
may find ourselves speaking of a sameness of self over time. But as with
the leaf, this judgement of sameness, strictly speaking, is unjustified. It
is a useful way of speaking that, in the case of a self, can lead to suffered
implications (for attachment to a sameness of self over time that is, to a
permanent self underlies suffering in the Buddhist conception).

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We might think that attachment to a causally continuous self, composed of the ever-changing aggregates, can be a source of suffering
just as can attachment to a permanent self. Both involve attachment,
after all. Consider the following example. I can be attached to a treasured plant that I keep on my desk, and fret and worry and thus suffer
over the demise of this treasured plant, without believing that there is
some essence or something permanent in the plant which is being lost.
Likewise, it seems that I should be able to fret and worry over the demise
of a self without believing that there is a soul or permanent and underlying entity that is coming to its end. A continuous self, it should seem,
is also subject to decay and ending (i.e., subject to sickness, aging and
death). The suffering may be less with attachment to a continuous, composite self (for there may be more scope for attachment, and more scope
for a sense of loss, with attachment to a more substantive view of self ).
But it seems that it can still be suffered as long as one can have cravings
and attachments associated with this composite self.
However, it is worth thinking carefully about whether the attachment and cravings in this case still involve a permanent self. Consider
the above example of the plant again. When I worry and fret over the
demise of the plant on my desk, my worry is for what I presume to be the
same plant; that is, I worry over the demise of the same plant on my desk
that was once thriving. I need not believe that there is an unchanging
essence or core or soul to the plant. Instead, I may view it as a composite
object that is causally continuous over time with no actual sameness to
be found. Nonetheless, I can quite easily be attached to the plant as being
the same plant over time. My attachment to the plant is more than an
attachment to continuity. We may describe it as an attachment to its continuity (and this locution betrays an attachment to sameness, to its being
the same plant over time). That is, the attachment here is to permanence,
even though this is not explicitly acknowledged (and even though all
that is explicitly acknowledged with the plant is causal continuity over
time). Attachment to permanence can be quite subtle. The discussion of
the continuity versus identity of self will be continued and elaborated in
the next chapter.

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XI
Karma and Rebirth:
Continuity, Not Identity

Introduction

K a r m a lit e r a lly m e a ns act ion. For the Buddha, karma did


not refer to any and all action, but specifically to willed or intentional
action (and thus karma is to be grouped with the aggregate of volitional
or intentional activity). Intentional or willed actions include not just
bodily behaviours, but also speech and, importantly, mental activity.
The act of desiring, fearing, or hoping, even if they do not manifest
outwardly with bodily movement or verbal expression, still constitute
karma in this Buddhist view.
The theory of karma also connects actions to reactions in a law-like
manner. It is commonly held, in Buddhism and in the Indian tradition
in general, that there are causal connections between past, present and
future actions and happenings. That is, ones past deeds are held to have
a determining effect on ones present state and ones present and past
deeds, through the operation of karma, to have a determining effect on
ones future state. This is not supposed to entail that ones present state
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is fully determined by ones past acts (or that ones future state will be
fully determined by ones present and past deeds), but it does accept the
existence of causal connections. It is held that we can affect the future
through changes in our present actions, and this presumes that the present
is not fully determined by the past. In other words, karmic connections
admit universal causation, but not causal determinism, and this is in line
with the doctrine of Dependent Origination discussed in the previous
chapter. Thus, while the theory of karma asserts that there are law-like
causal connections between the past, present and future, these are not
taken to be fully determining causal connections. For instance, making
changes in order to follow the Noble Eightfold path, so that suffering
may be overcome, is presumed to be a possibility open at any time. If we
are truly able to decide, in the present, for one course of action rather
than another, then the past cannot be fully determining the present.
Instead of being fatalistic, karma is seen as something that should lead
people to accept responsibility for their present and future lot in life.
The idea is that, because of karma, people can come to see that their
present lot and their present suffering is an outcome of their own previous actions over which they had control. This ability, to be in control
of whether we suffer or not, is clearer when suffering is conceived in
terms of the third grouping in the First Noble Truth rather than in terms
of the first two groupings. We may not always be able to prevent ourselves from experiencing pain or grief, or from becoming ill. We cannot
prevent aging and death at all. We cannot always remain unmoved by
unsatisfied desires. But these are not by themselves suffering under the
Buddhist conception. Suffering results from craving and attachment
to self. Whether we crave, and to what extent we are self-attached, is
a result of our own doing, and our own minds, and overcoming this
attachment can likewise be a result of our own mental efforts.
The law-like connections between cause and effect in the theory
of karma connect the concept of karma to the doctrine of Dependent
Origination, as well as to the Noble Truths, for these also emphasize the
importance of causal connectivity. Understanding karma in close connection to Dependent Origination is to understand karma consistently with

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Buddhist doctrine. However, in other respects, it is difficult to understand


karma in a manner consistent with basic Buddhist doctrine and principles.
This is particularly the case with the concept of rebirth which is often
associated with karma. This will be discussed further below and will
involve elaborating upon a distinction introduced at the end of the previous chapter: continuity over time versus identity over time.

Karma and Morality

Karma should not be confused with moral justice, or reward and


punishment. The theory of karma is a theory of cause and effect, of
intentional action and reaction, which is not intrinsically bound up with
justice. Still, good volitional actions are thought to produce good effects
through the operation of karma (and bad volitional actions are thought
to produce bad effects). Hateful thoughts, for instance, are thought to
lead to suffering. Insofar as hateful thoughts involve cravings and further
ones attachment to self, then given the understanding of suffering in
the Buddhist sense, we can see how suffering can result from hateful
thoughts. Likewise with covetous thoughts, etc. If we keep to the understanding of suffering as involving attachment to self, then hateful actions
should not be thought to lead, by the workings of karma, to suffering in
the form of public disapprobation, bodily injury, economic loss or some
such travail (either in this life or another), as these are not intrinsically
suffering in the Buddhist sense. That is, as long as suffering is conceived
in terms of attachment and craving, then the nature of the causal mechanism is this: intentional actions that involve cravings and attachment to
self will further entrench attachment to self; this is to cause suffering in
the Buddhist sense.
Nevertheless, karma or karmic connections are commonly thought
of as having a greater moral connotation than just this, and this warrants
some discussion. Buddhism arose within a cultural and religious milieu
with established ways of understanding things, and while Buddhism
appropriated some of these ways in explaining itself, it also set itself apart

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by criticizing others.1 As we have seen, Buddhism rejects aspects of traditional Upanishadic or Brahmanical thought, but it also appropriates
aspects of this tradition. The Buddhas audience employed certain basic
concepts in its understanding of the world, and the Buddha employed
some of these same concepts in making himself understood to his audience. Karma is among those concepts that were appropriated with
some amendment to express Buddhist doctrines.2
The notion of karma (as well as rebirth, to be discussed below) was
prominent in the Vedic and Brahmanical traditions of the Buddhas time
and was important for maintaining a moral order. Thomas appropriately
describes karma and rebirth as among traditional Indian responses to the
challenges to justice in light of the presence of suffering and evil. He
states:
They are the Indian answers to the eternal problems of pain and
evil. A man does wrong and suffers for it. But he may suffer when
he has done no apparent wrong. Hence his wrong was done in a
former life, and if he does wrong and apparently receives no retribution, he will be punished for his sin in another birth. Like all

1 C.f. Gombrich: the central teachings of the Buddha came as a response to


the central teachings of the old Upanisads, notably the Brhadaranyaka. On
some points, which he perhaps took for granted, he was in agreement with
the Upanisadic doctrine; on others he criticised it. Gombrich (1997), p.
31. And from Collins: The intellectual stratum of Buddhism worked with
the basic paradigm provided by Brahmanical thought, accepting the overall
form, while rejecting certain features. Collins (1982), pp. 39-40.
2 Collins, for instance, states: the appearance in the Brahmanical great
tradition of the ideas of samsara, karma, and moksa, was complete before
the time of the Buddha. This was the cultural world into which he was
born, and it was with these conceptual tools that he articulated his message
of salvation. Collins (1982), p. 64. See also Harvey: While teachings on
karma and rebirth are an important part of Buddhist belief, they are not the
most crucial, nor the most specifically Buddhist. They act, though, as the
lead-up to, and motivator for the most important teachings, those on the
Four Holy Truths. Harvey (1990), p. 46. It is interesting to note that when
Buddhism reaches into China, and then Korea and Japan, where the cultural
and moral traditions did not involve or require beliefs in karma and rebirth,
the presentations of Buddhism makes less use of these concepts.

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theories that accept sin and evil as positive realities, the doctrine of
rebirth rests upon faith, and ultimately on the faith that sin must
find its punishment.1
Karma and rebirth were notions that had wide currency. They provided a moral framework in which justice could be conceptualized as
being meted out on a grand scale (by allowing for unpunished injustice
in this life to be punished in a future life, and good acts unrewarded
in this life to be rewarded in another). As Thomas explains, the common acceptance of karma and rebirth served to maintain a moral
order by helping people believe that wrongful acts, while perhaps of
immediate advantage, would by the effects of karma meet with negative consequences, perhaps later in this lifetime or perhaps in the next.
A detrimental effect of this is that it can lead people to be accepting of
their present circumstances be it good, bad, rich or poor by leading
them to think of these circumstances as a fair inheritance of their deeds,
or misdeeds, in a previous life. Historically, these ideas have undermined
social mobility, and rigidified conceptions of caste and desert which
have been problematic in India. Still, these concepts were valued for
maintaining order in society. Rebirth also allows for the belief that if
enlightenment is not achieved in this life, headway can still be made
towards the achievement of enlightenment in a future life. To deny
rebirth in its literal sense, and uproot the belief in karma with its moral
implications, risks undermining this moral sensibility and rupturing the
order which rests on it.
As Thomas goes on to say, We do not need to question the fact
that the Buddha adopted the best of the moral teaching that he found.
Every system arises out of its predecessor.2 Buddhism did not initiate
this moral system, based on the notions of karma and rebirth, but it did
adopt and work with them. At the same time, these notions presume that
the same self who commits good or bad deeds will at some future time,

1 Thomas (1949), p. 175.


2 Thomas (1949), p. 175.

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either in this life or a future life, benefit or suffer from the consequences
of these deeds. This appears to conflict with Buddhist views on the self.
This will be discussed in the next section.

Karma and Rebirth

The effects of karmic causal connections are held to occur not just
between actions and events in this life, but to extend over successive
lives. The karmic effects that extend over lives may include being reborn
into better or worse conditions, or having good or bad events befall one
in a future life, or even being reborn as a different creature. This view
of karma as effective over successive lives necessitates an acceptance of
rebirth or transmigration of self from one life to another. There is a
looming difficulty with this view from a Buddhist perspective: how can
there be rebirth, and how can karma affect ones rebirth, if there is no
enduring self or soul to be reborn? The self is only a composite of the
ever-changing aggregates. There is no permanence of self over time and
so no permanence of self to continue on to another life. Buddhism is
clear that there is no enduring self, and in fact asserts that attachment to
this self is the root cause of suffering. Accordingly, the Buddha, while
not denying rebirth outright, is also clear that rebirth does not involve a
continuance of the same self. In the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutra, a monk is
described as misunderstanding the Buddha on this point:
there was a bhikkhu [monk] named Sati, a fishermans son, in
whom had arisen a pernicious view like this: Thus it is that I
understand the dhamma taught by the Exalted One: it is this same
consciousness, and not another, which transmigrates, which goes
through the round of death and rebirth.
Sati is then brought before the Buddha who criticizes and rebukes
him:

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Do you know anyone, you misguided person, to whom I have


taught the dhamma in that way? Misguided person, have I not spoken in many ways of consciousness as dependently arisen, since
without a condition there would be no arising of consciousness?
But you, misguided person, have misrepresented us by your wrong
grasp and have injured yourself and have accumulated much
demerit. And this, misguided person, will lead to your harm and
suffering for a long time.1
The strong tones in which the sutra portrays the Buddhas response,
which are uncharacteristic of the way the Buddha is generally represented, conveys the gravity of Satis error. The Buddha explains that
consciousness is generated by causal conditions (the causally conjoined
and ever-changing aggregates), and that it is not the same self or consciousness that continues on. Note that the Buddha does not deny
continuity after death, or the idea of rebirth, but does deny a personal
continuity. There is no personal rebirth or sameness of consciousness that
continues on after death. And there could not be if there is no permanent self to be reborn. In Chapter Nine it was described that the Buddha
clearly rejected both the positions of Annihilationism and Eternalism.
Eternalism is the view that there is a permanent self that continues on
after death. This view is presumed in the idea of a personal rebirth (for
it is the same self that is reborn to another life). Annihilationism is the
view that there is a permanent self that lives for a lifetime and then
perishes. The Buddhas rejection of both these views is due to his position that there is no permanent self, and therefore no permanent self that
can die or continue on after death. There is no permanent self who will
receive the future karmic effects of good and bad deeds, either in this
life, or in another life. The Buddhas rejection of a personal rebirth, as
seen in his response to the monk Sati in the passage above, accords with
the basic doctrines of No Self and Impermanence.

1 See Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya I 256-71. From Early Buddhist


Discourses, pp. 61-72. See also Collins (1982), p. 103.

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What, then, are we to make of the common view that rebirth does
involve a continuation of the same self? Collins addresses this by noting that the notions of karma and rebirth, as commonly understood to
involve future effects to the same self, are held primarily by lay followers
and non-specialists (i.e., those who are not adepts in Buddhist scholarship or practice). For them, the doctrine of No Self is not taken literally
as repudiating the belief in a permanent self (particularly as the notion
of no self is difficult to appreciate as being true of oneself ). Rather the
doctrine serves as a religious identification which differentiates them
from the religious followers of the Vedas and Upanishads with their
emphasis on Atman or True Self. Anatman is a means of emphasizing a
religious difference for lay followers. For monks and specialists, however,
No Self is supposed to be taken more literally and seriously (and this may
explain why, in the example above, the Buddha is represented as strongly
rebuking the monk Sati for thinking in terms of a permanent self ).1 In
addition, we may note that causal relations are described as law-like in
Buddhism, and this does not favour the re-accumulation, after death, of
psychological and physical parts so as to lead to a continuation of self in
some other form. This would be to view the causal workings of karma
as geared towards self-preservation or personal continuation, rather than
being impersonal causal workings. The notion of causal continuity, and
the difference between this and sameness of self over time, will be elaborated further in the next section on continuity and identity.
Recall that suffering, in the Buddhist conception, cannot simply be
physical injury, pain, sickness, aging or death (these are examples from
the first grouping in the First Noble Truth and they are not eliminable
from the human condition). Also, suffering cannot simply be a matter
of having unsatisfied desires (this is suffering as described in the second
grouping in the First Noble Truth, and this is also not eliminable from
the human condition). Thus, being sickly cannot be a just desert for
misdeeds in ones past, whether in this life or in a previous life, for being
sickly is not, strictly speaking, suffering in the Buddhist conception.

1 See Collins (1982), p. 77.

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Likewise, rebirth in a worse state, such as being reborn poor because one
was greedy, ugly because one was angry, deformed because one was violent, all of which were commonly believed in the Buddhas time, are also
not in themselves suffering under the Buddhist conception.1 Being poor,
ugly, or deformed are not suffering if they do not involve attachment
to self; examples such as these are not the suffering that Buddhism aims
to eliminate from the human condition. These depictions of the conditions of rebirth fit with the understandings of suffering described in the
first and second groupings of the First Noble Truth. Also, these depictions presume the lay-persons understanding of rebirth described above
because they all presume that it is the same self who will be reborn (for
otherwise, being reborn sickly, poor, or deformed, cannot be thought of
as punishment for ones past misdeeds).
Suffering, in the Buddhist sense, involves craving and attachment to
self and not physical affliction. Being physically afflicted may involve
suffering insofar as there is a craving not to be physically afflicted. But
then, in the Buddhist view, it is not the physical affliction itself that is
suffered. Rather, it is the attachment to self that is present in the craving
not to be afflicted that is suffered. This is the suffering that is held to
be eliminable and not the physical affliction. Given this understanding
of suffering, if stealing is to cause suffering, then one who steals must,
as a consequence, suffer from further attachment to self. Likewise with
someone who lies, cheats, or kills. Further attachment to self does not
seem to be much of a punishment (at least not as we would ordinarily
think of punishment). But it does make sense to say that hateful, hurtful
or greedy acts, which are usually committed out of selfish concern or

1 C.f. Harvey: The movement of beings between rebirths is not a haphazard


process but is ordered and governed by the law of karma, the principle that
beings are reborn according to the nature and quality of their past actions;
they are heir to their actions (M.III.203) If bad actions are not serious
enough to lead to a lower rebirth, they affect the nature of a human rebirth:
stinginess leads to being poor, injuring beings leads to frequent illnesses, and
anger leads to being ugly an extension of the process whereby an angry
person gradually develops ugly features during their present life (M.III.20306). Harvey (1990), p. 39. Harveys references are to the Culakammavibhanga
Sutra, Majjhima Nikaya III 203-06, pp. 1053-57.

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self-attachment, will result in a further entrenchment of self-attachment.


And it does make sense to say that this involves the workings of karma
as this is an uncomplicated cause and effect relationship (i.e., self-centred
actions entrench attachment to self ). But again, this sort of effect is not
punishment as we would normally think of it. However, as described
above, the concept of karma is not inherently one of justice, let alone
one of justly meted out punishment. It is supposed to be a concept about
law-like causal connections between intentional actions and reactions
that only indirectly relates to concerns of justice. It is easier to appreciate
a causal connection between misdeeds such as stealing and killing and
further attachment to self than it is to appreciate how these misdeeds
result in future physical afflictions and deformities.
It should be emphasized that, in its basic doctrines, Buddhism does not
present a moral theory for ordering a society or a framework for justice. It
presents a theory or better, a practice for individuals to eliminate their
suffering. There are moral consequences associated with these doctrines,
such as with the selflessness that comes with practicing No Self; but that is
not to say that these doctrines present a moral theory for managing social
relations. Even the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes steps explicitly
pertaining to moral conduct, is directed as a path towards overcoming
suffering (i.e., the moral conduct it prescribes is instrumental and directed
towards the objective of overcoming suffering). And the same holds for
following the Middle Way. All this conveys that Buddhism, in its early
and basic doctrines at least, is not as interested in presenting a moral
theory or framework for ordering society as in presenting a theory of
human suffering and the means for its alleviation. It is true that overcoming suffering for oneself cannot be achieved if it is motivated solely
by concerns for self, for it involves overcoming attachment to self (and
this has consequences for how one should appraise the suffering of others
compared to ones own). It is also true that the Buddhas life displays an
interest in pursuing the end of suffering for all humankind. Still, we do
not see in these early doctrines a presentation of ending the suffering
of others as a moral obligation (this sort of thinking, as we will see in
Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen, does arise with Mahayana Buddhism).

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Continuity of Self over Time, Not Identity

There is a Buddhist analogy for the self that involves a candle flame:
there is no permanent entity residing in the flame from one moment
to the next in virtue of which it is the same flame from one moment
to the next. There is just a series of states or series of flames perhaps
causally connected. Nevertheless there is an appearance of sameness,
and a utility to speaking of the flame being the same over time. So it is
with the self. As described, the doctrines of No Self and Impermanence
assert that there is no permanent entity that remains from one moment
to another. What we call self is no more than a composite of everchanging aggregates. The continuity of a composite self over time is
explained by the causal connections between the composing parts, the
aggregates. Continuity does not require that there be an unchanging or
abiding essence or core. By analogy, we may speak of a stream as being
continuous throughout without there being a part or core that is the same
throughout; or, a rope being continuous without a single thread running
through the whole of it. Likewise, there is no unchanging essence or
core that underlies a moving weather pattern, but we can nonetheless
trace changes and movements in a weather pattern back through time,
and to some extent, predict forward to the future. We can do so by
tracing causal connections.
The same is true of the self. I am a continuous composite self between
now and yesterday, or now and ten years ago, based on a line of causal
continuity among the aggregates. I am a different person from a person
sitting next to me on a bus, and different from who that person was five
years ago, because of different lines or histories of causally connected
aggregates.
The traditional Buddhist response to the question of whether someone reborn is the same or different is neither.1 The person is not the same

1 Gethin states: when asked whether the one who is reborn is the same or
different from the one who died, the Buddhist tradition replies that strictly
he (or she) is neither the same nor different. Gethin (1998), p. 144. Gethin
cites the Milinda Panha in which the monk Nagasena provides (continued)

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because there is no sameness of self or consciousness that passes on from


one life to another (this was described in the previous section). But also,
the person reborn is said not to be different from the one who died if
there is causal continuity. This is not a personal continuity involving
sameness of self, but a causal continuity of impersonal aggregates which,
it was thought, need not end with bodily death.
However, our subjective sense of self presumes an actual sameness of
self over time. The belief in being the same self from one period of time
to another involves the notion of numerical identity over time. This is the
notion of something being one and the same thing over time (this notion,
and the distinction between it and qualitative identity, was described in
Chapter Nine). In the Buddhist view, a belief in the numerical identity
of self over time, while useful in speaking about selves, is ungrounded
(for again, there is nothing that remains unchanged over time that would
justify a judgement of numerical identity). In the following discussion,
the notion of causal continuity, and the contrast between this and an
actual numerical identity, will be illustrated with analogies.
One of the things we do when we speak of sameness or identity is
to contrast it with difference to establish that one thing is not something else. For instance, if I take you to a copse of trees and point to a
particular tree and say: this is the same tree I planted ten years ago,
what I do in speaking of it being the same tree is convey that it is this
tree and not some other tree that I planted. Sameness is here contrasted
with difference. What I dont mean, or more accurately, what I dont
have to mean, is that the tree has remained unchanged, or that some
part of it has remained unchanged over those ten years. It is plausible
that theres not a single cell in this tree now that was in it when I planted
it. My judgement is based on causal continuity, and this line of causal
an illustration of this idea of being neither the same nor entirely different: a man steals a mango from another mans orchard and, upon being
seized, replies that the mango he took is different from the seed the other
man planted. Nagasena replies that while this is true, the stolen mango is
not entirely different from the planted seed: there is a causal connection
between the seed and the mango, and this is sufficient for holding the thief
morally responsible. See Milinda Panha 46, p. 72.

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continuity establishes that it was not some other tree that I planted ten
years ago. The tree has, strictly speaking, not remained the same, but my
speaking of it as the same tree is not problematic in this context, as it is
unlikely to be taken as meaning that the tree has remained unchanged.
We might say that the sapling I planted ten years ago and the tree today
are different parts or perspectives of one thing1 (although this way of
speaking is awkward). But again, this one thing is not the adult tree, or
an essence or spirit shared by both the sapling and the tree. Rather, it is
just the line of causal continuity between the sapling and the tree they
are both parts of this temporally strewn out and causally interconnected
line. When I say this tree was the same as that sapling, I convey that there
is a line of causal continuity in virtue of which the sapling is not identifiable with another tree, or the tree with another sapling. The assertion
of sameness here has implications for what is other or different, and in
virtue of this may seem like a judgement of actual identity rather than of
causal continuity. But again, in the Buddhist view, there is only causal
continuity over time upon which to base judgements of sameness and
difference, and no actual identity or sameness over time.
Just as with the sapling and tree, the child I once was is in many
respects different from the adult I now am. Despite these changes, I
make statements of identity (as I just did in using the word I in referring
to myself as a child and adult). As noted, the doctrines of No Self
and Impermanence deny that there is something essential, something
unchanging or permanent, between these two times that would justify
a judgement of sameness of self. We might reply that there is a sameness
of genetic code between myself as a child and as an adult. However,
this code is not part of my psychological attachment to self; it is not
something which I can inwardly observe or introspect as a basis for
attachment. The ever-changing aggregates are all we observe; the notion
of a permanent self is something we attach to the aggregates (as when

1 Contemporary Western philosophers sometimes speak of the tree-atthis-instant as a stage, or an instantaneous time-slice, of the tree; together
with all the other instantaneous time-slices of the tree, they constitute the
tree-through-time.

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Ispeak of my body, or my desires, etc.). But it is observed that there


is no basis among these aggregates for this attachment to a permanent
self (this was the Argument from the Aggregates, described in Chapters
Four and Eight). Thus, the judgement of sameness of self must rely only
on causal continuance. I am the same as the child only in the sense that
I can draw a line of causal connection or history between myself and
that child (and not to any other child). The child and the adult are the
same only in virtue of being parts of the same causally continuous line
of aggregates.1
Our thoughts and statements about ourselves in the future, such as in
thinking about what we will do in the coming week or year, also generally presume a sameness of identity (for otherwise, who am I thinking
about, or making plans for, if not for the same self?). When I crave (a
delicious pasta, say, or to live another day) I presume an identity with
the self who will be the beneficiary of the future I crave. The same holds
for wants, hopes, fears, expectations, and more, that involve thoughts of
our future self. For as the Buddhist monk Nagasena asks: Can it be that
one (person) trains in a craft, another becomes proficient?2 Buddhism
does not deny the value or usefulness of these judgements of identity.
It does not deny them a role or say that they should not be made. In
Nagasenas case, clearly the training at one time has a causal influence on
the proficiency at a later time. Rather, Buddhism denies that the judgements of identity or sameness over time are justified in terms of an actual
identity or sameness. And it asserts that these judgements are problematic

1 In this respect, the child and adult are both parts of a greater whole: the
line of causal continuity over time that connects the child to the adult. It
is elucidating to view the composite self as a whole over time, rather than
as an entity that is a whole at each moment of time and moves as a whole
through each moment of time, for as described, this latter view lacks true
identity criteria.
2 As translated in Collins (1982), p. 186. Nagasena raises other examples along
with this one that pose the same question: Is the mother of the embryo in
the first stage different from the mother of the embryo in the second stage,
or the third, or the fourth? Is the mother of the baby a different person
from the mother of the grown-up man? Milinda Panha 40, p. 63. Nagasena
emphasizes while they are not identical, they are not entirely different persons either. Once again, while there is no identity, there is causal continuity.

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if they lead to cravings and attachment to self (in which case they are
suffering-inducing).
Judgements of the identity of self are said to have a conventional role
or to be conventionally true (for reason of being useful), but not to be
ultimately true. A distinction between two truths: conventional truth
and ultimate truth, is commonly employed in Buddhism (we will see
this distinction employed, albeit somewhat differently, in the next chapter on the Abhidharma, and again differently in the chapter after that on
Mahayana Buddhism). No Self, as with the other basic doctrines, is an
ultimate truth. Speaking of selves is useful though. It is important that
we be able to identify others as being the same selves over time as well
as identify ourselves as being the same over time. For the reason of being
conceptually and linguistically useful, judgements of self, and specifically
of being a numerically identical self over time, can be regarded as conventionally true. But in the Buddhist view, the conventional should be
recognized for what it is, only conventional, which means recognizing
its usefulness without attachment. It is when the conventional is treated
as more than it is, as ultimately true and with attachment, that suffering
arises. We can continue to talk in terms of being the same person over
time, including through dramatic life changes, as long as this proceeds
without attachment. Even if you live to be a hundred and ten, and suffer cognitive degradations, we may still speak of you as being the same
person and you may think of yourself as being the same person even
though you may have changed quite a lot. This judgement of sameness
is not ultimately correct in the Buddhist view, but it is not sufferinginducing either as long as it proceeds without attachment.
Causal continuity also allows for judgements of moral responsibility
without presuming an actual sameness of self. This is famously illustrated
by the monk Nagasena. The example is given of a man who starts a fire
to keep warm and negligently doesnt put it out. Later on, after he has
left, the fire spreads and burns someone elses field. The man is arrested
but he claims that the fire he started is not the same as the fire that
burnt the field (these fires are not the same as they differ in size, intensity, materials burned, location, etc.). Nagasena points out that while

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there is no strict identity between the fire the man started and the fire
that burned the field, there is nonetheless causal continuity. The fire he
started to keep himself warm led to the fire that burned the field, and
this is the basis for holding him morally responsible. That is, while the
man is right that the fire that burned the field is not the same particular
fire as the fire he started, it is nonetheless a fire he caused. Causal continuity is held to sufficiently justify a verdict of moral responsibility.
This example occurs in a series of discourses between the monk
Nagasena and a king named Milinda (also known as Menander, an
ancient Indo-Greek king of Bactria). In these discourses Nagasena
illustrates the doctrine of No Self, and the notion of a composite self,
with the analogy of a chariot. This illustration was presented in Chapter
Eight, but it will be revisited here to further elaborate the Buddhist
view of personal identity over time. Before that, it is worth observing
how Nagasena begins the series of discussions with King Milinda. King
Milinda, having heard of this wise monk, meets him and wants to talk
with him. Nagasena agrees but on one condition: the king converse with
him as the wise converse, and not converse with him as a king converses.
This is quite a thing to say to a king, and King Milinda asks him to
explain himself. Nagasena duly obliges and says:
Your majesty, when the wise converse, whether they become
entangled by their opponents arguments or extricate themselves,
whether they or their opponents are convicted of error, whether
their own superiority or that of their opponents is established,
nothing in all this can make them angry. Thus, your majesty, do
the wise converse.1
Nagasena then elaborates that kings converse in opposing terms,
getting angry when their views are disputed and so on. This exchange
conveys not simply Nagasenas courage, or perhaps foolhardiness, in front
of the king. It conveys not only that Nagasena thinks that discussions
1
Milinda Panha 28-29 as translated in Warren (1987), p. 128.

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such as this should pursue truth and not self-promotion, although there
is this too. The passage also conveys something of the psychological attitude that is required, and that a monk is supposed to keep and this is
worth elaborating. The doctrine of No Self, which they go on to discuss,
is described as a Right View (Right View, to remind, is the first step in
the Noble Eightfold Path, discussed in Chapter Seven). But a monk is
not supposed to be attached to anything as a Right View, including the
doctrine of No Self. It can be easy to attach a sense of self to a doctrine,
as when one argues with self-righteousness. Such an approach to the
doctrine of No Self, though, is not productive. It is not simply holding
or believing the doctrine of No Self that is the objective, but realizing it,
and being attached to the doctrine, arguing for it with heated emotion,
with self-righteousness, feeling pride in oneself in defending it well, and
self-concern when not, are all contrary to this objective. Nagasena does
not want to be party to that kind of exchange, but not just for himself
for presumably, if he truly is a wise monk, then his equanimity will not
be easily disturbed in debate. His concern is also for the king. Nagasena
is tasked to elaborate the doctrine of No Self to the king that is what
follows in their discourse and he does not want the king to be possessed of, or attached to, a view in the discussion. Such an attachment
would be disruptive of the spirit in which the doctrine of No Self is to
be correctly appreciated.
Now, let us return to the analogy with the chariot. Nagasena explains
that just as a chariot is made up of parts, such as rims, axle, carriage,
etc., the same is true of the self; it is made up of aggregates. A chariot,
in a certain sense, is more than the mere sum of its parts. As described
in Chapter Eight, a chariot is not more because it weighs more than the
sum of its parts, or because it contains something hidden other than
its parts (whatever that might be). That is not the right sense of more.
Rather, it is more than the sum of its parts in the sense that it can do
something that the parts by themselves cannot do. The chariot is the
parts put together in a certain way, and is a chariot insofar as it carries
out certain functions. A self is also more than just the mere sum of its
parts. But this is more likely to be misunderstood. Similar to the chariot,

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a self is more than the sum of its aggregate parts in the sense that the
parts must be organized appropriately to function as a self. A self is not
more than the sum of its aggregate parts in the sense that there is some
extra ingredient some unchanging essence or permanent spirit or soul,
Nagasena affirms. From our inside, first-person point of view, however,
it may seem we are more than the sum of our psychophysical states in this
sense. Furthermore, like pins in a pin cushion that are not proper parts
of the cushion in which they are stuck, it may seem that the aggregates
(thoughts, feelings, etc.) are not proper parts of oneself; they may seem
to be things that are had by the self, or experienced by the self, while the
self is entirely something other than its aggregates. But this is likewise
judged to be incorrect.
The analogy with the chariot asserts that the self is properly viewed as
a composite. Also, the parts which make up the self, the aggregates, are
different from chariot parts in that they are more like processes or events
than things. When we turn within, the events we encounter be they
desires or fears, thoughts or memories, feelings or images, all arise in our
conscious awareness and then pass. The aggregates are characterized by
this arising and passing, or impermanence. What makes these aggregates
into a composite self are causal connections. The composite self does
not remain the same over time the continual arising and passing of its
aggregate parts does not allow for an actual sameness but it can nonetheless be causally continuous over time.
We might wonder why this composite self cannot remain the same
composite self over time remain numerically identical that is even
while it is continually changing. Something with parts, we might think,
should be able to remain the same thing over time even while its parts
are changing. Heraclitus famously asserted that one could not step twice
into the same river. This is because the river is continually flowing
after you step in it once, it is no longer the same river. To respond to
Heraclitus, one could say that you can step into the same river twice
because the river, considered as a whole a continuously flowing whole
is one river. Our understanding of something being one thing in this
case one river can encompass changes in that one thing. A river doesnt

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continually become a different river as its water flows. It remains one and
the same river.
However, this sort of response to Heraclitus does not speak to the
sense of identity that is in question for the Buddha. True enough, different episodes in my life can be considered as belonging to one and the
same life; the same causally continuous life. But this sense of same life, or
one life, is not numerical identity. The Buddha, as well as David Hume,
can readily admit that the collection of aggregates is one collection; the
bundle of perceptions is one bundle. In fact, this is implied by Nagesena
in comparing the collection of aggregates to a chariot: the aggregates
come together to form a composite self just as chariot parts form a chariot. This composite self involves a line of casual continuity over time.
However, it is not thereby identical through time. That is, the composite
self is one thing over time, but not the same thing at each moment of time.
No part of a river is, strictly speaking, identical with any other part, and
yet we can speak of different parts as belonging to one and the same river,
and this is due to causal continuity among parts. Likewise, the composite
of aggregates that I am at one moment is not identical with the composite
of aggregates that I am at any other moment, and yet we can speak of the
composite of aggregates as forming one continuity over one lifetime, due
to causal connections between the aggregates over time.
To be clear, judgements of being a numerically identical self over
time may be conventionally true which is to say they can be useful
judgements, but are not ultimately true in the Buddhist view. Causal
continuity allows us to speak of the parts of a river as parts of one and
the same river. Likewise, causal continuity can support the judgement
that parts of a life are parts of one and the same life. This is a judgement of sameness, in a sense, but it is not the judgement that there is
something unchanging, something essential between the parts of a life
and that migrates through the parts of ones life. Yet a common aspect
of our sense of self, or of our attachment to self, is just this: remaining
the same self, moment by moment, through time; undergoing changes
in bodily and mental qualities, but in some essential aspect remaining
the same; in short, remaining numerically identical while qualitatively

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changing. Again, this notion is repudiated by the doctrines of No Self,


Impermanence and Dependent Origination. There is only causal continuity over time, and the only sameness between parts of a life is in
virtue of belonging to the same causally continuous whole. Nonetheless,
the presumption remains of being a self that is the same from moment
to moment; the same in moments passed, and the same in moments to
come. This is numerical identity over time, and in the Buddhist view, it
is to this sense of being the same that we are strongly attached.
We will finish off this section and chapter with two illustrations of
conventionality and arbitrariness in judgements of identity.
The first has been used to speak about questions of identity by many
in the history of Western Philosophy: the Ship of Theseus. Theseus
leaves port and, during his long voyage, each part of his ship planks,
sails, oars, masts, etc. get steadily replaced. At the end of his voyage, every part of the ship has been replaced. The question is then asked
whether this ship is the same as the one on which Theseus began his
voyage. Some may say no, as it is completely materially different. Some
may say yes as it is still his ship, and serves the same purpose. For some,
the gradualness of the changes makes a difference: if the ship had been
destroyed all at once and Theseus simply bought a new ship, then this
would be different than the one he left port with; but with each replacement being piecemeal, and the changes gradual, the resulting ship is not
different. To further complicate the matter, the possibility is raised of
someone trailing behind Theseus, picking up all his cast off parts, fixing
them, and reconstructing the ship from its original parts.1 The question
is then asked which ship, if either, is the same as that which left port: the
ship with parts replaced, captained by Theseus, or the ship with original
parts, captained by someone else? They cant both be, for, by definition,
two cannot be numerically identical to one.
What is the right answer here? Although this particular example is
not from the Buddhist canon, it would seem that the Buddhist response
would be that it is a mistake to think there is an ultimately right answer.

1 Blackburn (1999), p. 127.

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There is only the answer we arrive at, and that is conventionally useful.
That is, if we judge that Theseus ship is always the one he captains, and
that this provides the criterion of identity, then it is the same ship as the
one that left port. If our conventions favour materially being the same
ship, then it is not the same ship (while the ship put together with cast
off parts may be said to be the same ship). There is no fact of identity that
can determine a right answer independent of our conventions. Although
we still appeal to reasons in making judgements about the numerical
identity of the ship, the results we come to will involve agreement or
custom. That is to say, judgements of numerical identity are dependent
upon convention, and are thus conventionally true. And of course, this is
what Buddhism is saying about selves and their identity over time.
We may wonder, if we undergo so many changes, and there is no
essentially same self through these changes, if any one age or time represents who we really are. For instance, we may wonder if the age of
twenty-five, or some other age, best captures who we really are. It is
the Buddhist view that to choose any given time slice as being quintessentially you is to choose arbitrarily, for there is nothing about any one
age over another that makes it more you, or really you. There can be no
age that better captures who you really are, or that better captures the
essential you including the age at which you are now at for there just
is no essential you in the Buddhist view. This way of thinking and speaking, on the Buddhist view, continues to reflect an attachment to self.
It can be hard not to be attached to identity, even when you know
even when you tell yourself that there is no identity through time.
With this point in mind, let us consider one more illustration (this
example was introduced at the end of the previous chapter and is being
continued here). Suppose I have a plant on my desk, which I started as
a cutting a year ago and that has now developed into a nice leafy plant.
I know that there is nothing unchanging about the plant. The plant is
continuous over time, and at each moment it is causally connected to the
plant it was the previous moment. I know that although I can speak of
the plant as being the same such as when I say this plant is the same as
the one I started as a cutting a year ago I know that there is no actual

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sameness or unchangingness to the plant over time. Numerical identity,


I can tell myself, is a way of speaking (and it is surely simpler than saying
this plant is causally continuous with the plant I began as a cutting last
year). But it is more than just a simpler way of speaking. There is often
attachment as well.
This can be seen when something happens to the plant. If I accidently
knock the plant over, and I fret over the damage done to the plant, my
fretting is likely for what I feel to be the same plant as that which I had
nurtured over the past year. While I may explicitly believe the plant is
only causally continuous, I can still be attached to its continuity, and
thus to its sameness. That is, I may not explicitly believe that there is
anything that has remained the same about the plant and still be attached
to its sameness. Or more simply, I am attached to it. Now a plant is one
thing. Our attachment to ourselves, to our sense of being the same self
over time, is much greater. The sense of remaining the same self, in some
essential capacity, is part of how we think and speak, of how we conceive
of and feel about ourselves as well as others. The attachment to being
the same self is consequently that much more difficult to dislodge, if it is
possible at all.
Suppose the plant, in being knocked over, was unsalvageable. I see
no more plant where before I saw one. The plant, for me, has come to
its end. What is the difference here between saying the causal continuity has come to an end versus saying its identity has come to an end?
Well, the causal continuity does not, strictly speaking, end. It changes
direction perhaps, and this can be an end for our intents and purposes.
I throw the plant in the garbage, or into the compost, and the lines of
causal continuity that follow from this are disconnected, in my mind,
from the plant that was on my desk. I have taken a certain portion of
that causal continuity, and viewed it as having identity. The same applies
to the self. As described earlier, to the question of whether the reborn
person is the same or different, the traditional response is neither.1 There

1 King Milinda asks, He who is born, Nagasena, does he remain the same
or become another? Nagasena responds, Neither the same nor another.
Milinda Panha 40, p. 63.

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is no sameness of self over time and this follows from the doctrine of
Impermanence. But as long as there is causal continuity, there is not
complete difference either. The lines of causal continuity do not end
when the plant is thrown in the garbage, even if our interest in this
causal continuity has ended (the plant will, for instance, decompose in
the trash and there will be further causal chains that will issue from
this). Similarly, it was believed that the causal continuity of the aggregates does not end with death and this is because, in the Buddhist view,
it is not in the nature of causal continuity to end. That is, while we
might think that the causal continuity of psychological states comes to
an abrupt end with the death of the body, it was thought that these lines
could also continue on and manifest in a rebirth (but to emphasize again,
the Buddha held that causal continuity does not support the rebirth of a
same self ). Note that nirvana involves the extinguishing of craving, and
attachment to permanence or sameness of self. This is not the same as
an end to the causal continuity of the aggregates, but more specifically,
an end to certain aggregates: cravings, and thereby an end to attachment
to the aggregates. The end of craving and attachment is an end to the
illusion of being the same self over time.
The beginning of the self should be regarded similarly to the end. For
many, physical birth is considered the beginning of the self; for others,
the beginning is conception; for some, it is the beginning of brain activity, or sentience; and for others still, the beginning is some months after
physical birth when a clear sense of self hood begins to develop. All of
these views presume a beginning to a line of permanence or sameness of
self. As discussed in Chapter Nine, the Buddha rejected annihilationism,
which was to reject the idea that there is a permanent self a sameness
of self over time that has an end point at death. Implied in this is a
rejection of the idea that there is a permanence or sameness of self that
has a beginning point. There is only causal continuity over time, and
causal continuity is not initiated at birth, and neither does it end with
death (causal chains do not completely end and neither do they originate
from nowhere; this would introduce uncaused causes and violate universal causation). Thus, the judgement that the self begins at birth may

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be conventionally true, and it may be supported by reasons as well, but


it is not ultimately true in the Buddhist view (and neither is any other
beginning point). Rebirth in Buddhism does not involve an identity or
sameness of self before this life or after this life. It is instead based on
the continuity of causal chains. Whether or not we accept rebirth of the
self (and whether or not there remains much to accept once it is denied
that it is the same self that is reborn), it is important to appreciate the
Buddhist rejection of identity in favour of causal continuity in thinking
of rebirth and, more generally, in thinking of the self over time.
Coming back to the illustration of the plant: I see the causal continuity
of the plant on my desk as having an identity through time: an identity
that starts when the cutting is planted, and ends when the plant topples
(even though lines of causal continuity precede its planting, and proceed
on after its toppling). I might even give it a name, as people sometimes do
for plants. We even sometimes do this for storms and weather patterns, in
order to identify particular ones, even though we clearly know these are
ever-changing. And fair enough. Granting and speaking of identity over
periods of time has clear uses, and this is nowhere denied. Thinking and
speaking in terms of the sameness of self over time, whether this is our
self or other selves, is clearly useful. But as described above, these useful judgements of personal identity can have only a conventional truth.
There is no permanence or sameness of self over time in the Buddhist
view. When we make judgements about sameness or permanence of self
over time, we overstep what can be empirically justified by observations
of the ever-changing aggregates. Now these judgements have their uses.
But when we do so with attachment that is, when we become attached
to our identity over and above mere continuity we treat the conventional as something more than it is; we treat it as ultimately true. In the
Buddhist view, it is with this attachment that suffering begins.

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XII
The Concept of Dharmas
in the Abhidharma
The Abhidharma, the Dharma, and Dharmas

Dh a r m a, i n Bu ddh ist usage, refers primarily to the doctrines


of the Buddha. They are the truths of Buddhism, and in particular, the
Four Noble Truths, and the doctrines of No Self, Impermanence and
Dependent Origination. The word Abhidharma means the higher
teachings of the Buddha, and thus the higher truths of Buddhism also.
But the Abhidharma is not quite a set of teachings; and it is not a particular school or sect within Buddhism. Rather, it is a collection of texts
and literature. These texts are a canonical source for certain Buddhist
schools, such as the Sarvastivada, Sautrantika, and Theravada. The collection or basket of these texts the Abhidharma Pitaka, along with
the Sutra Pitaka and the Vinaya Pitaka (the collection of manuals for the
Buddhist monastic order), form what are called the Tripitaka. These are
the three baskets or collections of texts comprising the early Buddhist
literature of the Pali canon.1 The Abhidharma texts are thus one of three

1 The Pali transliterations of these are Abhidhamma Pitaka, (continued)

195

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traditional sources and collections of texts (at least, that is, for Buddhist
schools for whom the Abhidharma are canonical). The Abhidharma
texts are regarded as presenting a systematic treatment and analysis of the
Buddhas teachings. Indeed, the Abhidharma represent a first attempt to
lay down, think through, and systematize the Buddhas teachings.
Gethin describes a dual aspect to the Abhidharma: first, a set of books
regarded by most ancient schools as the word of the Buddha and as such
forming the contents of the third basket of scriptures, the Abhidharma
Pitaka; secondly, the particular system of thought and method of exposition set out in those books and their commentaries.1 The status of
the Abhidharma as being the word of the Buddha has to do with the
source of the Abhidharma texts: as Gethin relates, they are presumed to
be the product of the first generation of the Buddhas disciples.2 It is this
closeness to the Buddhas own thoughts, through the record of his first
generation of disciples, which grants the Abhidharma texts the status of
being the word of the Buddha. The proximity in time and lineage to
the Buddha himself is regarded at least among those schools for whom
the Abhidharma texts are canonical as conferring authenticity to the
Abhidharma literature, and thus to its systemization. Coming so closely
on the heels of the Buddhas original teachings, and being a first attempt
at thinking through and systematizing these teachings, it sets a stage and
standard upon which further developments in Buddhism build, and against
which they react. In this regard, the Abhidharma may be seen as providing terms for Buddhist philosophical discussion and thought, including
the Mahayana philosophy to be discussed in the following chapters.3
The Sarvastivada, Sautrantika and Theravada are three key Buddhist
schools that find a textual source in the Abhidharma literature.
Sutta Pitaka and Tipitaka. Vinaya Pitaka is transliterated the same from Pali
as from Sanskrit.
1 Gethin (1998), p. 203.
2 Gethin (1998), p. 54.
3 Williams affirms just this: The name for Buddhist philosophy as a whole, it
seems to me, is Abhidharma, in the sense that Abhidharma sets the agenda,
the presuppositions and the framework for Buddhist philosophical thought
Williams (2000), p. 140.

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Sarvastivada is a parent school of the Sautrantika, and together with


the Theravada, they are the schools of which we have some significant
knowledge. In the case of Sarvastivada, this is largely by way of Chinese
sources and translation.1 There are two principal Abhidharma texts among
the sources and manuals of these schools. These are the Abhidharmakosa
or Treasury of Abhidharma, a summary of the teachings of Sarvastivada
by Vasabandhu,2 and the Visuddhimagga or Path of Purification, by the
Theravada monk Buddhaghosa. Buddhaghosas name means voice of
the Buddha. His Path of Purification is a comprehensive discourse and
guide that tries to organize the Buddhas teachings and provide a systematic analysis and understanding of the path to enlightenment.
The Abhidharma represents a certain way of thinking about the reality that is the focus of the Buddhas teachings. It provides an analysis of
reality as it is experienced into irreducible constituents. These constituent
elements are called dharmas, and it is held that the basic teachings of the
Buddha the Dharma are ultimately about the reality that is formed
of these dharmas.3 A taxonomy of the dharmas reads like a periodic table
of elements. Different Abhidharma schools present varying taxonomies
with different categories and numbers of dharmas. For instance, for the
Sarvastivadans, the number of types of dharmas is seventy-five, and for
some Theravada schools the number of dharma varieties is eighty-two.4
The dharmas, like atoms, are held to be the building blocks of reality.
But there are notable differences between dharmas and physical atoms
and these will be discussed in the next section.

1 At one point there were said to be eighteen different schools with different
interpretations of the texts. Despite the differences between them, as Siderits
points out, Most of those disputes lack any major philosophical significance. Siderits (2007), p. 116.
2 Most likely not the Vasabandhu of Yogacara Buddhism.
3 As noted earlier, there are no capital letters in Sanskrit. Nonetheless, the
transliteration Dharma is capitalized to signify the standing of the term,
and also to distinguish more clearly from the dharmas.
4 Gethin (1998), p. 210.

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Dharmas and Atoms

The Dharma is the basic doctrines and teachings of the Buddha. The
Dharma is believed to describe the way things really are. The dharmas are constituents of the reality described by the Dharma, and so the
Dharma may be said to be ultimately about the dharmas. The dharmas
are mental and physical constituents of the world of our experience.1
This notion of the world of our experience, as opposed to the world as
it may exist independently of being experienced, warrants elaboration.
This will be a focus of the next section, which concerns dharmas as
ultimate reality. This section will begin the discussion of the nature of
dharmas and will focus on similarities and differences between dharmas
and physical atoms.
Gethin compares dharmas with physical atoms:
Ultimately dharmas are all that there is. In this respect dharmas
are very like atoms Thus just as a table might be analysed by a
chemist as consisting of innumerable atoms, so a person is analysed
by Abhidharma as consisting of innumerable dharmas just as the
wood that makes up a table can be analysed into atoms of various
elements, a persons mind and body can be analysed into dharmas
of various classes dharmas are not enduring substances, they
are evanescent events, here one moment and gone the next like
dewdrops at sunrise or a bubble on water, like a mirage or conjuring trick.2
Dharmas, says Gethin, are like atoms for both are basic building blocks.
As he notes, the composition of a table may be analysed by a chemist or
physicist into a number of different types of atoms. In the Abhidharma,
instead of the chemists or physicists analysis, the composition of a
persons mind and body is analysed into a number of different types of

1 The phrase comes from Williams (1989), p. 15. The passage in which it is
contained is discussed in the next section.
2 Gethin (1998), pp. 209-10.

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dharmas. A mind is composed of mental dharmas, and a body of physical dharmas. We might respond that a persons body is also made up of
atoms (and a persons mind, conceived in terms of an underlying brain,
is similarly made up of atoms). This again raises the question of how
dharmas are different from atoms.
First, and most simply, atoms are the building blocks of physical
objects, like tables and chairs and human bodies. But atoms can be broken down into further constituents, such as quantum particles, and these
constituents can perhaps be broken down even further (physical atoms
are not philosophical atoms, as this term is used). Dharmas, though, are
held to be irreducible simples (i.e., they are philosophical atoms in the
proper sense).
Second, dharmas are intrinsically connected to experience in a way
that physical atoms are not. For instance, while we may say a tree is composed of atoms, it is not quite right to say that a perception of a tree or
a mental image or imagining of a tree is composed of atoms. This is
not how we would describe the parts of a perception or mental image.
The neuronal brain state that underlies the mental image of the tree is
comprised of molecules, which are themselves composed of atoms. But
again, we do not speak of the mental image, qua mental image, as being
composed of atoms. This is not to say the mental image is non-physical.
Rather, it is to say that the description of the mental image and its parts
do not involve a description of molecules or atoms. The physicists atoms
are not the constituents of our experiences of the world as we are aware
of these from a first-person point of view.
The Theravada Abhidharma divides dharmas into fifty-two categories
of mental constituents and twenty-eight categories of physical constituents. The physical constituents include, for example, earth, water, air,
fire; and the mental constituents include, for example, compassion, greed
and non-greed, volition, concentration.1 Dharmas that are mental constituents, such as compassion, are clearly unlike physical atoms (there is
no atom for compassion). But dharmas that are physical constituents are

1 Williams (1989), p. 15.

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also unlike atoms. These dharmas constitute experienceable qualities (to


use Western philosophical terminology, we could say that physical dharmas involve secondary qualities). For instance, the dharmas of earth and
water speak, respectively, to the aspects of solidity and liquidity or wetness that we experience with physical objects. The experience of holding
a rock in your palms is different from that of cupping water, and this difference in quality (or qualia, to use another Western philosophical term)
is accounted for in terms of a difference in dharmas. The former involves
more earth dharmas for these are thought to confer the quality of solidity, and the latter more water dharmas. A difference in type, number and
order of dharmas constitutes the difference in perceptible qualities of the
rock versus the water.
Let us consider the example of the tree once again. A tree is composed
of physical atoms (the atoms compose molecules which form chemical
bonds which make up the material of the tree). But the experience of a
tree involves perceptions, and these perceptions, in the appropriate sense,
are not composed of atoms. Once again, this is not to deny that the
brain event that underlies a perception of a tree is composed of atoms.
However, the perception of the tree itself the aggregate that is encountered in our minds eye is observed in terms of the specific perceptible
qualities that combine to make up the perception, and these are held to
be dharmas. Different dharmas come together to form the tree as it is
perceived. For instance, the visual perception of a tree involves an experience of greenness (assuming the tree has green leaves), an experience
of brownness (assuming the bark is brown), and these are experienced
as being arrayed in a specific way. These different colour and shape
components are said to involve different dharmas (in this example, the
dharmas are somewhat like coloured pixels forming an image;1 this analogy should not be taken too far though, in particular as visual perception
is but one aspect of our experience of the world). A perception, such as

1 C.f. Gethin: rather like the way in which a colour photograph in a


printed book is seen as an unbroken whole when it is in fact made up of
countless tiny dots of just four colours, so consciousness is made up of
separate dharmas. Gethin (1998), p. 211.

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of a tree, involves dharmas of different sorts to account for the different perceptible qualities we encounter (solidity, texture, colour, shape,
smell, etc.). Experiences such as fears, desires, loves, hates, etc., are said
to be composed of mental dharmas of different types.
The difference between mental and physical dharmas does not mark
a fundamental ontological division in the world, but rather a broad division between kinds of experience (by and large between internal and
external experiences). Physical dharmas such as earth and fire, which
speak to the qualities of solidity and heat, make up external experiences.1
Mental dharmas such as compassion and greed make up internal experiences. The totality of these kinds of dharmas, arrayed into different
forms, constitutes the world in which our lives unfold. Dharmas do not
constitute the world as it may exist independently of our experience of it
(as we think physical atoms do). Dharmas pertain to categories and kinds
of human experience in a way that physical atoms do not. This intrinsic
connection to experience is the second disanalogy with physical atoms.
To put it another way, the Dharma, being the teachings and truths
of the Buddha, is supposed to describe the way things really are. But
the teachings and truths of the Buddha are aimed at the human condition and overcoming suffering in the human condition. They are not
scientific doctrines that aim to describe the world at large, in terms that
are independent of how it is experienced by humans. Physical atoms
constitute this world, and this is described by physicists. Dharmas constitute the world of human experience, both of the inner mind and the
outer world. It is within experience that suffering arises and the idea is
that a systematic account of this world of experience of the specific
constituents of human experience will allow for a close understanding
of the sources of suffering and of the human condition in general. The

1 Just as seeing a red apple involves physical dharmas, so should imagining a


red apple in my minds eye; the sensations, after all, may be the same. But
the latter, it would seem, is not an external experience. This means that the
broad correspondence between mental and physical dharmas and, respectively, internal and external experiences is not without exception. Mind
sensations and perceptions seem to be internal experiences that involve
physical dharmas.

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Buddhas doctrines and teachings his Dharma is based on a careful


observation of the human condition. The dharmas are held to be the
minute constituents of what he observed. They are, in other words, the
constituents of the aggregates.1 The notion of the totality of dharmas
constituting the world of our experiences will be further discussed the
next section.
Continuing on to the third disanalogy, Gethin states in the above passage that dharmas are not enduring entities but rather are evanescent.
Mark Siderits uses the word occurrences; he states: an earth atom
dharma is not a tiny solid particle. It is just a particular occurrence of
solidity. Likewise a fire atom is not a hot thing, it is just a particular
occurrence of heat.2 What is meant in saying dharmas are evanescent,
or occurrences, is that dharmas are events and not enduring objects. That
is, dharmas are not microscopic things. They are transient events. This
is a third point of disanalogy with physical atoms.3 However, dharmas
are unlike other events. For instance, they are not like sunsets or changes
in weather. These events are quite complex and involve parts changing
over time. Dharmas are irreducible simples, not complex events, and
thus cannot have changing parts. This means that the kind of change
dharmas undergo cannot involve having changing parts. Instead, the
kind of change dharmas undergo is the movement from one dharma to
another. This is the arising and passing of dharmas. And this, of course,

1 Insofar as the first aggregate, bodily processes, is read to refer to the physical processes themselves, then the dharmas that compose these would be
more like physical atoms (and this would introduce an ontological division
between these dharmas and the dharmas that constitute other aggregates).
But insofar as the first aggregate is read to refer to our experiences of
physical processes i.e., the perceptible qualities of our bodily states and
processes then the dharmas that compose these would be like the dharmas
that compose the other aggregates and unlike physical atoms. This is a further reason for reading the first aggregate in a manner similar to the other
aggregates (i.e., as referring to our awareness of bodily states rather than to
the physical states themselves).
2 Siderits (2007), p. 113.
3 This may not be a disanalogy with subatomic particles which can be
construed as waves or units of change.

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is to say dharmas are subject to Impermanence as described in Chapter


Nine.
The first disanalogy with physical atoms, noted above, was that
dharmas could not have parts; they were irreducible simples. The third
disanalogy is that dharmas are events, not objects. These two points
together raise a conceptual challenge, for a simple event is more difficult
to conceive than a simple object. A simple object is one that cannot be
broken down any further; it is fundamental in this sense. It is impartite.
But conceiving of a simple event is more problematic. Any event, no
matter how brief, must transpire over a period of time; it must take time
to occur. Hence, any event, it would seem, must be able to be further
subdivided into smaller temporal parts. Any event must have a duration, and any positive duration can be further parsed. A duration must
have a beginning, middle, and end, and this should be a way to further
distinguish and divide an event. Simple events raise a greater challenge
to our abilities to conceive than do simple objects. This is a comment on
the apparent ontology of events as opposed to objects. This issue will be
discussed in the last section, which concerns the duration of dharmas.

Dharmas as Ultimate Reality

According to the Abhidharma, the world we experience is composed


ultimately of dharmas and nothing else; they are the building blocks
of this world. This is to say that dharmas have svabhava. This term is
variously translated as self-being, own-being, substance, and essence.
Own-being is a closely literal translation and we will stick mainly
with this translation. Dharmas have own-being because they are irreducible simples of which everything else in the world we experience is
constructed. That is, dharmas have own-being because they are basic
constituents; they do not depend on composing parts, and in this sense,
dharmas exist independently.
In contrast, everything constructed of dharmas does not have ownbeing and exists only dependently. Williams elaborates:

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The concept of self-existence or essence (svabhava) was a development of Abhidharma scholars, where it seems to indicate the
defining characteristic of a dharma In the Abhidharma only
dharmas, ultimate existences, have essences. Conventional existents tables, chairs, and persons do not. This is because they are
simply mental constructs out of dharmas they therefore lack their
own specific and unique existence.1
We might respond to this by saying that dharmas too are dependent:
they are dependent on physical atoms and particles. For instance, there
would be no perceptible quality of yellow without photons reflecting off
of surfaces at specific wavelengths. This means that there would be no
dharma of yellow, or yellowness, without these reflecting photons. Or,
there would be no dharma of fire, or heat, if there were not molecules
moving within spaces. Using Western philosophical terminology, this
would be to say that secondary qualities, such as yellowness and heat,
are dependent upon primary qualities, which include fundamental particles and their properties. Likewise, we might say that there would be
no dharma of compassion if there were not specific neurophysiological
goings-on in the brain. This line of response contends that dharmas are
dependent upon physical atoms (or to use another Western philosophical
term, dharmas are supervenient upon physical atoms and their properties). This dependence on atoms would suggest that dharmas do not exist
with own-being, or as ultimate existences. Clearly, the Abhidharma
would resist this. It is worth elaborating on why this would be.
The Abhidharma analysis that yields dharmas rigorously applies the
Buddhas empiricist method. The idea is that close observation uncovers dharmas, not atoms. When we encounter the world around us, our
experience is of colours, shapes, smells, tastes, textures, etc. These are
all perceptible qualities that, according to the Abhidharma, involve
specific dharmas. Likewise, when I look inwardly into the contents
of my mind although this is a metaphorical looking it is nonetheless

1 Williams (1989), p. 60.

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an experiencing of my mind I encounter not atoms but feelings and


desires, memories and thoughts, and other mental events. Even if I peer
into an electron microscope and see an atom or its effects close up, I
still only encounter various perceptible qualities (shapes, sizes, colours,
etc.), and these perceptible qualities, according to the Abhidharma, are
composed of dharmas. The belief that there must be something behind
the dharmas such as physical atoms that account for the perceptible
qualities of dharmas is based on inference, not direct observation. What
is directly observed or experienced are only perceptible qualities, that is,
dharmas. Our experiences of the world such as of a tree are complex.
Many different perceptible qualities come together to form the experience. Dharmas are the finest or smallest units of what we experience.
They are the simples of which complex experiences are formed. And the
different categories of dharmas are the different kinds of ingredients that
join together in myriad ways to form our manifold experiences.
It is worth drawing a brief comparison with the history of British
Empiricism (once again), for the thinking is, to an extent, similar.1
According to the empiricist George Berkeley, there is no justifiable distinction to be made between a perceptible quality (such as yellow) and an
external reality behind the perceptible quality (the thing that is yellow).
Berkeley, being an empiricist, asserted that all we experience are perceptible qualities and not an external world behind the perceptible qualities.
He concluded, on the basis of this empiricism, that there was no external world independent of perceptible qualities. This is akin to saying
only dharmas exist, and no physical atoms apart from dharmas, because
all that direct observation justifies are dharmas. However, Berkeley
inferred that immaterial minds also exist, because perceptible qualities
require minds to perceive them. And so he concluded that, while an
external mind-independent world cannot be justified, immaterial minds
can. This position, according to which only minds and their contents
exist, is called metaphysical idealism. But this conclusion is not justified by observation: no minds independent of perceptible qualities are

1 In Chapter Four, the methodologies of the Buddha and David Hume were
discussed and compared.

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observed. Only the perceptible qualities are observed. Berkeley inferred


the existence of minds, thinking that they are necessary for there to be
perceived qualities, but does not directly observe them. This point was
made by David Hume (who applied the empiricist method more fully
and consistently than Berkeley, and whose empiricism did not lead him
to metaphysical idealism). The view that only perceptible qualities exist
(i.e., that all objects mental and physical are no more than collections
of perceptions) has commonly been attributed to Hume.1 For instance,
Roderick Chisholm contends that for Hume a peach would be no more
than its perceptible qualities: fuzziness, roundness, firmness, etc.; this is
conceptually on par with speaking only of dharmas.2
At any rate, we can see why a consistently employed empiricism could
lead to the view that all that ultimately exists are dharmas. And we can
see why these dharmas are asserted to exist independently, or with ownbeing, since there is nothing else observed upon which they depend.
And everything which is constructed of dharmas is, as a consequence,
not ultimately real. Instead, it is said to be only conventionally real, or
dependently real. Thus, tables and chairs are only conventionally real.
Likewise with persons or selves: the composite self, composed of the
ever-changing aggregates, is only conventionally real.
Consider this passage from Williams, introducing this distinction
between ultimate and conventional, or between what is true and real
and what only appears to be so:
All Buddhist traditions accepted an analysis of the human being
into the five psycho-physical constituents. As we have seen, there

1 This view of Hume was held by Thomas Reid. Wade L. Robinson states:
Thomas Reid took Hume to be at the tail end of a chain of diminishing
ontological commitments. Locke claimed that all knowledge has its sources
in ideas and yet committed himself to the existence of material and immaterial objects as well as God. Berkeley pointed out the inconsistency of being
empiricist in such a way and yet holding that material objects exist. Hume
is read as going the further step of deleting immaterial objects and God
as well. Reids reading of Hume was a common one in his day and has
remained common. Robinson (1976), p. 39.
2 Chisholm (1969), p. 8.

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is no independent being, he or she is really made up out of an


ever-changing series of physical matter, sensations, conceptions,
volitions and so on, and consciousness. Implicit in this very old
analysis, therefore, is a distinction between what appears to be
true and what is really the case. Eventually, in the Abhidharma
traditions, this issues in a distinction between conventional and
ultimate truth (or reality). The conventional reality is the world
in which we live. Ultimate realities are the elements which really
compose the world of our experience 1
For Williams, the distinction between ultimate and conventional
truth (or reality) is a distinction between reality and appearance. Williams
further notes, and carefully so, that the dharmas, or ultimate realities,
constitute the world of our experience. He also notes that what is
conventionally true does not compose the world of our experience;
rather, conventional reality is the world in which we live. The world
of our experience is thus distinguished from the world in which we
live. Also, given that what is conventionally real is only apparently real,
it follows that the world in which we live is an appearance. These
points will be elaborated.
It was earlier pointed out that the Buddha was not a metaphysician or
scientist out to describe the universe at large. He was, rather, a careful
observer of himself and the human condition. Through careful observation he was led to judgements about what is true and what is untrue, or
between what is true and what only appears to be true, in human experience. The aggregates are what he observed, and they are supposed to
encompass all our experiences. They include external experiences such
as sensations and perceptions of the external world (in the Abhidharma
systems, these are composed of physical dharmas), and internal experiences such as desires, hopes, feelings, willings, and much more (and these
are held to be composed of mental dharmas). The distinction between
ultimate truth and conventional truth, or between what is real versus

1 Williams (1989), pp. 14-15.

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what only appears to be real, may be thought to be a distinction between


the way the physical world really is and the way it is experienced. But
this is not the way it is applied in the Abhidharma. Rather, the distinction applies to the world of our experience, for experience itself is real
and, if we pay close attention, is something in which we can discern
truths from apparent truths. The world of our experience is ultimately
composed of dharmas according to the Abhidharma.
The Buddha observed and judged that there is no permanent self
among the aggregates. This is a truth about the world of our experiences. There only appears to be a permanent self not in the sense that
we can observe or see one, but because we, or at least the unenlightened
among us, are attached to one and may firmly believe in one. This is
an aspect of the world in which we live, and is only apparently or conventionally real. Just as appearances can mislead the incautious scientist
about the world he observes, they can mislead the incautious observer
about himself. Without careful observation, the conventional may be
taken for ultimate, and what only appears real, such as the self, may be
taken for real.
The Abhidharmas concern with the world of our experience
is also the Buddhas concern. Consider, for instance, the doctrine of
Impermanence. The Buddhas empiricist methodology would not support
a metaphysically substantive claim such as that there is no permanence
anywhere in the universe. As described in Chapter Nine, such a claim
not only goes beyond what the Buddha could have observed, but would
have been contrary to much of what he actually would have observed (a
rock, for instance, would appear to not undergo change for long stretches,
let alone appear to undergo constant change). It was not in his expertise,
or interest, to make judgements about the nature of the physical universe
independent of human experience. The Buddha was not a physicist, or a
speculative metaphysician, and he was not trying to be or interested in
being one. He was, though, a careful observer of his own condition and of
the human condition in general. And it was within his expertise as a careful observer of himself to judge that there is no permanence in experience,
or among the contents of his minds awareness.

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It may be thought that, as long as experiences are veridical, to describe


our experiences is also to describe the mind-independent world or the
world as it exists independently of being experienced. But this is to miss
the focus and agenda of the Dharma. The Dharma in particular, the
Noble Truths and the basic doctrines including No Self, Impermanence
and Dependent Origination are directed at overcoming the experience of suffering. The focus of the Dharma is on describing the nature
of human experience and what is necessary for overcoming suffering in
that experience. And as human experience is the focus of the Dharma,
it is also the focus of the dharmas: they are the constituents of human
experience, and as a totality, constitute the world of human experience.
The world of our experience includes experiences of tables and chairs,
trees and buildings, as well as desires and fears, thoughts and memories,
and much else. This totality of experiences is the world in which we live
(our desires are real to us just as trees are real to us, and both are aspects
of our experiences and lives). The Buddha considered his experiences
closely and grouped them into aggregates. The Abhidharma analysis
can be seen as an extension of the Buddhas empirical analysis, for each
aggregate can be observed to be complex. The aggregates can be seen
to have parts when looked at closely and these parts can be seen to fall
under different types. These ultimate parts are the dharmas, and in the
Abhidharma view, they are what are ultimately real in the world of our
experience.

Dharmas and Mindfulness

There is an important connection between the observation of dharmas


and mindfulness. Gethin points this out:
Essentially Abhidharma is a device for promoting mindfulness and
understanding. The study of Abhidharma encourages the practitioner to pay attention to the kinds of mental states that are occurring
whatever he or she is doing. It also draws the practitioners attention

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to the way in which the spiritual process is understood to unfold.


To this extent it can be seen as simply the elaboration of the analysis of the five aggregates and the twelvefold chain of dependent
arising.1
The observation of dharmas involves looking very closely at experiences internal and external for in observing dharmas we are observing
the smallest units or constituents of our experiences. An observation
of dharmas allows for a more careful view of causal interconnections
because it involves observing the causal inter-workings of the component parts of experiences, rather than just causal connections between
whole experiences, or complex experiences. That is, part of paying very
close attention to the causes of experiences is paying attention to the
constituents of experiences the smallest units and how these come
together to form the experiences we undergo. With the systematizing
of dharmas, dharmas that are causes can be understood to be causes of
certain types. This means that types of causes can be linked to types of
effects, and the causes that lead to suffering can be identified by their
type. Noticing the relations between types of events is necessary for
making predictions that certain kinds of effects will follow from certain
kinds of causes. A mindful exercise of Dependent Origination requires
not just carefully noticing events and their causes but types of events,
and the causal relationships between types of events. In this way the
Abhidharma analyses which group dharmas into types and classes helps
to put into practice Dependent Origination, and to overcome suffering
by identifying which causes to eliminate.
An observation of dharmas is part of a refined and discerning
mindfulness. This is because in being mindful of dharmas, an adept is
observant of the smallest and briefest units of experience; attentive to the
quick succession between arising and passing, and of the encroachment
of attachment to self within this quick succession; and aware of causal
relations between experiences internal and external at a fine-grained

1 Gethin (1998), p. 217.

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level of inspection. Mindfulness of dharmas should seem to be a very


close and keen mindfulness. The proper taxonomy of the dharmas is
open to question, and is viewed a little differently by different schools
associated with the Abhidharma. Nonetheless, the principle is still supposed to stand that a mindful awareness of experiences of the arising
and passing of aggregates from the minds attention will be all the
more attentive for paying mind to the dharmas, the constituents of the
aggregates, for these are the minutiae of experiences.
For dharmas to play this role in the exercise of mindfulness, they must
be observable. This condition of being observable places conditions on
the duration of dharmas and this will be considered next.

What Is the Duration of a Dharma?

Dharmas are subject to the doctrine of Impermanence, which is to say


that they arise and pass from the minds attention. These dharmas may
compose external experiences (such as sensations and perceptions of
the external world) or internal experiences (such as desires and fears).
Either way, the succession of aggregates in the minds attention, and
thus the succession of the dharmas which constitute these aggregates,
is often very quick, dashing from one to the other, and often seamless.
This movement of aggregates and the dharmas that compose them is
portrayed with the analogy of monkeys swinging along from branch
to branch. The analogy conveys that there is a continual succession of
dharmas, and that the mind is really only focussed upon one aggregate
of dharmas at a time (although the very quick succession may make it
seem like more).1

1 Gethin elaborates: The arising and passing of each moment of consciousness is understood to occur extremely rapidly consciousness is
experienced as a continuous flow, but is in fact made up of the rapidly
occurring sequence of consciousness moments, each with a particular
object. We may think that we are thinking of two or three things at once,
but according to the Abhidharmikas we are just very rapidly turning from
one thing to another and back again. Gethin (1998), pp. 211-12.

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Dharmas are brief, fleeting events, not small enduring things. As


noted earlier, this raises a conceptual difficulty: it seems that dharmas,
while they may be very brief or evanescent, must have some positive
duration; and any duration can be conceived of as having temporal
parts a beginning, middle, and end. While we may not be able to perceive events with very brief durations (such as a nanosecond), any finite
duration can, in principle, be further subdivided. No duration is impartite. And this suggests that dharmas with durations cannot be simples.
To avoid this result we may be pressed to admit that dharmas have no
duration. But this cannot be. If a dharma has no duration, it cannot be
an event (for an event that lasts for no time is no event at all). And just
as zero plus zero is zero, an aggregate of dharmas that have no duration
would also have no duration, and thus dharmas could not come together
to form an aggregate. One might reply that this sort of aggregation does
make sense. After all, a line with non-zero length is, by analogy, thought
of as being composed of zero-length points. But of course, geometrical
points are theoretical constructs, not objects we can perceive. Likewise
zero-duration dharmas would be imperceptible theoretical objects,
contrary to the clear Buddhist empiricism about them. So we ask: do
dharmas have a duration, and if so, what is it? As we will see, there is no
clear answer. This section will pursue this enquiry by considering and
assessing four possible, exhaustive answers. After this, the views of specific Abhidharma schools will be briefly considered and situated among
these possible answers.
The four exhaustive answers are: (i) dharmas have no duration; (ii)
they have a duration but it is too brief to be noticed; (iii) dharmas have a
duration, and this can be noticed, but no parts to the dharma can be further noticed (i.e., this duration is too brief for us to experience anything
more than the dharmas occurrence); and (iv) dharmas have a duration
which lasts long enough for us to notice parts.
The first answer is that dharmas are events with no duration. We
already noted why this cannot be correct. If there is no duration, then
there is no event. There cannot be any arising or passing if there is literally no time for something to arise, to pass, or to persist between arising

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and passing. Dharmas without duration could not be aggregated into


anything that can be observed or experienced (for as noted above, zero
plus zero is still zero). Since dharmas are supposed to constitute our
experiences, and since they are supposed to be observable in an exercise
of mindfulness, they must have some positive duration.
The second answer is that dharmas have a positive duration, but this
duration is so brief that it escapes human perception. Such dharmas
could be aggregated together to form events of noticeable durations (just
as a table is composed of particles that are too small to be seen, but when
aggregated, the table can be seen). But if a dharma is too brief to be
noticed, like an elementary particle is too small to be seen, then such
a dharma cannot be noticed in the exercise of mindfulness. These are
dharmas that we would not observe to individually arise, or pass, and
we would not observe causal connections between them. But the observation of dharmas is an important part of the exercise of mindfulness.
Williams makes this point:
A monk developing the insight meditation, wishing to see things
the way they really are, develops the ability constantly to analyse his experiences into their constituents. He is said to dwell
peacefully, observing the rising and falling of dharmas, thereby
dissolving the objects of his attachment and cutting at the root of
desire. Thus by learning to see things the way they really are he
brings his ignorance to an end.1
The observation of dharmas is supposed to be an important part of
mindfulness and meditation, and this conveys that dharmas should be
able to be observed (and not just observed when they are aggregated
together to form complex experiences). In addition, we may note that
if dharmas escape observation, then they cannot even be judged to exist
based on observation (and this is contrary to the Buddhas empiricist
methodology). So far it seems that dharmas must have a duration and this
duration must not be so brief or quick so as to escape notice.

1 Williams (1989), p. 15.

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On the third answer, the duration of a dharma is neither too brief


for the dharma to go unnoticed nor long enough for temporal parts to
be noticed. This is a duration in which dharmas are observed as simple
events and not as complex events. Since these dharmas are observable,
they can be the objects of a mindful awareness. These dharmas can then
be aggregated to form complex events or experiences of a longer duration. As noted above, any duration, no matter how brief, can be further
subdivided. However, at some point, when the duration of an event
is too brief, the event cannot be humanly registered. The duration of
a dharma on this third answer is the briefest observable duration (we
might say it is an experiential simple). This view also faces difficulty, but
this is more complicated and will be picked up a little further below.
The fourth answer is that dharmas have finite durations that can be
noticed, and these durations are long enough to notice parts. However,
under this possibility, dharmas are complex events, not simple events.
Thus, this fourth answer is not admissible.
These four answers present exhaustive possibilities. Either a dharma
has (i) no duration; or (ii) a duration that is so brief that it cant be
noticed; or (iii) a duration that can be noticed but no parts to the dharma
can be noticed; or (iv) a duration that can be noticed but is long enough
to notice parts to the dharma as well. Lets sum up the assessments so
far. The first answer admits no duration, but this means that there is no
event, and no opportunity for a mindful awareness of the dharma. The
fourth answer treats dharmas as complex events, rather than as simple
events. Complex events would be composed of further constituents, and
so these are not dharmas. The second answer holds that dharmas have
positive durations, but these are too brief to be humanly perceived (these
dharmas would only be noticeable in aggregated form, as complex experiences and not as the irreducible simples that they are). Such dharmas
cannot be the objects of a mindful awareness and the observation of
them cannot be a part of overcoming suffering. Also, the existence of
dharmas on this view cannot be justified by observation (and as noted,
this is at odds with the Buddhas empiricist methodology). This leaves
answer three. The third answer asserts that dharmas have a duration that

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is long enough to be observed, but not long enough to notice parts. Like
Goldilocks after trying other not-quite-right bowls of porridge, this one
seems just right. The duration of a dharma on this answer is the briefest
humanly noticeable duration. Like a flash, we might say it lasts for a
moments notice.
However, there are difficulties with the notion of a briefest noticeable duration. The duration of a dharma under this third answer must
be long enough to be noticed, but not long enough to notice parts to
the dharma. But these limits are open to variation. Different creatures,
with different sense organs and different cognitive capacities, may be
able to notice events of very brief durations that humans cannot, while
others may not notice events that humans can. Such differences also
exist amongst human beings, of course, due to age, ability, training, or
just circumstances of alertness at any given time. That is, at some times,
some of us may be able to notice events of a very brief duration while
at other times, we may not. The duration of a dharma on this view
is circumscribed between upper and lower limits that are variable and
physiologically and circumstantially dependent. If we were to opt for a
lowest common denominator a duration that is at least noticeable by
all humans regardless of how alert they are then this duration would
be long enough for many alert humans to notice parts to the dharma
and so for them it would be complex and not simple (i.e., it would fall
under answer three for some people and answer four for most others).
Alternatively, if we were to opt for the briefest duration that is humanly
noticeable, then it would be too brief for many humans to notice at all
(i.e., it would fall under answer three for the most alert of individuals,
and answer two for the rest of us). The point that should be coming
across is that it is exceedingly difficult, and seemingly impossible, to
specify the duration of a dharma under the conditions of answer three
that would apply to all individuals at all times.
Perhaps then we should just say that dharmas have no fixed duration
while still being simples. That is, the duration of a dharma is just what
a given person, at a given time, is mindfully able to be aware of as a
simple event. This would mean that durations of dharmas could vary

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across times, situations, and people in which case there is no common


answer to the duration of a dharma. A difficulty with this is that dharmas are supposed to be the independent constituents of our experiences.
They are supposed to have svabhava. But on this answer, the duration of
a dharma is dependent on, and can vary with, physiology, age, and other
circumstances affecting attentiveness at any given time. Dharmas are
events, and so having a duration is an intrinsic aspect of what a dharma
is (just as having size is an intrinsic aspect of being a physical object;
note that under answer one dharmas have no duration, but as described,
they cannot then be events). However, on this third answer, the duration of a dharma is dependent on a variety of factors that can affect
attentiveness and mindfulness. This means that dharmas are rendered as
dependent rather than independent events. This is not in keeping with
the independent existence or own-being that dharmas are supposed to
have. Perhaps this answer is the most appealing, but it is certainly not
without its difficulties.
At any rate, no clearly correct answer on the duration of a dharma
is in the offing. It is notable that Buddhist schools associated with the
Abhidharma canon did not reach a clear consensus on the duration of a
dharma. To finish off this chapter we will briefly consider the positions
of two of these schools on the duration of dharmas. Gethin, drawing on
textual sources for both the Sarvastivada and the Sautrantika, states:
There is no Sarvastivadin consensus on the length of a moment but
figures given in the texts work out at between 0.13 and 13 milliseconds. Yet, object the Sautrantikas, if something endures unchanged
for even a moment, then the fundamental Buddhist principle of
impermanence is compromised. If things are truly impermanent,
then they must be changing continuously and cannot remain static
for any period of time, however short. This kind of thinking led
to the conception of moments as point instants of time which, just
as geometric points have no extension in space, have no duration
in time.1

1 Gethin (1998), pp. 221-22.

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The above passage states that, for the Sarvastivadins, the duration of
a dharma is between 0.13 and 13 milliseconds. The shorter duration is
too brief to be humanly recognized, and so it fits under answer two
considered above. The upper figure is less clear. On the one hand, a normal motion picture film involves 24 frames per second, that is, about 42
milliseconds for each frame; but we do not perceive individual frames.
A motion picture involving 12 frames a second (each frame lasting 83
milliseconds) has barely noticeable individual frames. On the other
hand, an image on a cathode-ray tube (the older type of computer and
TV screen), which is adjusted to have dark intervals of 16 milliseconds
between screen renewals, has a noticeable flicker. A dharma duration of
16 milliseconds may thus fall under answers two or three (and perhaps
even four for the most alert of individuals). Presumably the same holds
for an event lasting 13 milliseconds (as the durations are quite proximate): in some cases it may arise and pass without being noticed; in
other cases, it may be noticed but no parts to the event are noticed; and
perhaps in other cases, under very alert conditions, it may be noticed
and parts also noticed (such as a beginning distinct from an end). Thus, a
dharma duration of 13 milliseconds seems as if it may fall under answers
two, three and perhaps even four depending on conditions of alertness
and other circumstances while a duration of 0.13 milliseconds would fall
under answer two. In short, the point can be reasonably made that the
Sarvastivadan band of 0.13 to 13 milliseconds runs the range of answers
two to four, and provides us with no clear understanding of the duration
of a dharma.
In contrast, the Sautrantika position described by Gethin clearly falls
under answer one above. As explained, the difficulty with this option is
that if dharmas are mere point instants with no duration in time,
then they cannot be observed. It does not even allow for observable
aggregates to be formed from dharmas (for again, zero plus zero is still
zero). The reason presented in the above passage for the Sautrantika position is that any duration seems to violate the doctrine of Impermanence.
This view is worth elaborating. Dharmas are simples. They cannot have
parts. This means that dharmas cannot undergo any change that involves
a change in parts (dharmas, of course, may change by succeeding each

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other, by arising and passing, but this is a change from one dharma to
another and not a change within a dharma). It follows from this that if
dharmas have a duration, this must be duration of time during which
there is no change (for there are no parts to change). This duration of time
(between the arising and passing of a dharma) would be a duration in
which there is permanence. And thus, in the Sautrantika view, a dharma
with a duration is thought to violate the doctrine of Impermanence. In
Chapter Nine, it was described that there must be a duration of time
between the arising and passing of the aggregates for otherwise the
aggregates would not be noticeable. They could not be objects of mindful attention if they did not persist for even a very brief time. Indeed, if
there was no duration between the arising and passing of an aggregate,
there would be no aggregate (for any event requires some duration during which it occurs). This implies that dharmas, and the aggregates they
compose, must persist for some positive duration. This is certainly what
we observe when we pay attention to the contents of our minds: mental
states be these desires or fears, perceptions or memories enter into
our awareness, persist for a time, and then pass. Sometimes they persist
very briefly and sometimes longer. The empirical evidence of observation conveys that aggregates have some finite duration (even though this
duration is unfixed). Since the dharmas are supposed to come together
to form the aggregates, and to be observable in themselves, dharmas
must have some finite duration as well.
Coming to an understanding of what this duration is runs into considerable difficulties, as we have seen. This may be why there is no clear
consensus on this issue. One approach to dealing with these difficulties
is simply to say that there are no dharmas, for then there is no problem
in accounting for the duration of dharmas. The idea here is that dharmas should not be ontologized as existing independently or ultimately.
This sort of view is advocated in the original literature of Mahayana
Buddhism the Perfection of Wisdom sutras wherein it is asserted that
dharmas are empty. Specifically, the dharmas are held to be empty
of svabhava or own-being and this is contrary to what the Abhidharma
affirm of the dharmas. This will be discussed in the next chapter.

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XIII
The Concept of Emptiness
in Mahayana Buddhism

Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism

M a h aya na Bu ddh ism is a movement that begins centuries after


the Buddhas death, as early as the first century BCE in India. Its origination involves the appearance of specifically Mahayana sutras or scriptures.
In addition to the tripitaka (the three baskets of early Buddhist literature
that include the sutras Sutra Pitaka, the monastic rules Vinaya Pitaka,
and the higher Dharma Abhidharma Pitaka, discussed in the previous
chapter), texts began to appear that were not part of the early textual
tradition. These texts were held, within Mahayana Buddhism, to be the
true meaning and word of the Buddha, which was revealed only to more
advanced disciples. These sutras thus claim legitimacy and importance,
and due to their being revealed to only more advanced disciples, they are
also held to be more difficult and privileged.1 These sutras include the

1 The idea that the Buddha spoke differently, or taught differently, based on
the level of spiritual understanding of the audience is itself an (continued)

219

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Astasahasrika sutra, or the 8000 line sutra, which is thought to be the earliest of this literature, the Heart and Diamond sutras which are considerably
shorter and more widely read and renowned, as well as several others.1
Particularly significant in the East Asian Buddhist tradition is the Lotus
sutra. It is held that these scriptures describe a superior awakening based
on the example of the Buddha and his enlightenment.
The Four Noble Truths constitute the Buddhas first preaching upon
enlightenment, and they assert a diagnosis of suffering and a prescription
for its eradication. The Noble Truths state that freedom from suffering
can be achieved by following the Noble Eightfold Path. It is presumed
here that one can reach enlightenment as a goal pursued for oneself. This
is not to say that enlightenment can be successfully achieved while selfishly pursued (for selfishness conflicts with steps on the Noble Eightfold
Path). Rather, the point is that one may pursue the end of suffering as an
individual goal. The Buddha may have spent the greater part of his life
helping others overcome suffering, but the Noble Eightfold Path does
not state that a Buddhist adherent must do the same. A commitment to
helping others, let alone a commitment to helping others to an extent
similar to the Buddhas, is not a stated requirement.
It is not that the Noble Eightfold Path or the Noble Truths are incorrect in the Mahayana view. However, the Mahayana path does require
more, if not to reach enlightenment, then to reach the sort of enlightenment of the Buddha. To reach this enlightenment, it is claimed, not
only must the Buddhas teachings be followed, but his compassionate
example as well. Early Mahayana teachings and scriptures look beyond
the explicit terms of the Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path to the
life of the Buddha, and note that while the Buddha attained enlightenment as an individual, he was committed to ending the suffering of
everyone. The Buddhas example, it was thought, conveys a message not
important element of Mahayana Buddhism called Skillful Means. This will
be described in the next chapter.
1 C.f., Edward Conze: the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra are in a class by
themselves and deservedly renowned throughout the world of Northern
Buddhism. Conze (1973), p. 9.

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fully captured in the early writings and scriptures. The Buddhas example conveys a commitment to helping others overcome suffering, and
this compassionate commitment is an essential aspect of the Mahayana
path to enlightenment.
A distinction is made between degrees of enlightenment. Someone
who pursues individual freedom from suffering, rather than helping others and trying to achieve a collective freedom from suffering, is said to
be only able to reach a lesser enlightenment. Someone who achieves this
personal enlightenment is called an Arhat. But those who follow the
Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the compassionate example
of the Buddha by selflessly helping others to overcome suffering are said
to be able to achieve an enlightenment similar to the Buddhas own.
A being who commits to a life of helping others, to the extent of putting the alleviation of their suffering above his or her own, is on a path
towards becoming a Bodhisattva. The term Bodhisattva literally means
enlightened being. The path of the Bodhisattva aims for the benefit of
all, and not just the individual, and this is considered within Mahayana
Buddhism to be a nobler ideal, one that is true to the path of the Buddha
himself. The Bodhisattva is held in higher esteem than the Arhat, and to
have achieved a greater enlightenment.
Mahayana Buddhism spread as Mahayana monks and practitioners travelled. These travels led primarily northwards and eastwards.
Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism presently found
north of India in Nepal and Tibet, and in East Asia China, Korea, and
Japan. The varieties or forms of Buddhism associated with the Theravada
tradition spread mainly in a southerly and easterly direction from India,
and are the dominant forms of Buddhism found today in Sri Lanka,
Burma, Thailand, and Laos (both Theravada and Mahayana are commonly practiced in Cambodia and Vietnam). Theravada literally means
the teachings of the Elders [Thera], and finds its sources in the older
texts of the Pali canon. Speaking quite generally, Mahayana Buddhism
admits a greater possibility for lay people to achieve enlightenment than
does Theravada Buddhism and non-Mahayana traditions (wherein the
possibility of enlightenment is largely limited to those who have pursued

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a monastic life or who have gone forth from society). Also, there is
often a close relationship between laity and monks in communities practicing Mahayana Buddhism. This should be expected given the emphasis
and expectation of Mahayana monks and adepts to be compassionate and
help others overcome suffering.
The Mahayana commitment to helping others is expressed in the very
name Mahayana, which means great or greater vehicle. Yana means
vehicle or vessel, and Maha indicates greatness.1 Mahayana Buddhism
is so called for its concern that all should be delivered from suffering
(in a great vehicle) rather than a concern for individual freedom from
suffering. This latter ideal is associated with what is called Hinayana
(lesser vehicle), and traditional schools of Buddhism that advocated
Arhatship were grouped under this title. This would include schools
associated with the Abhidharma canon such as Sarvastivada, Sautrantika
and Theravada. The title Hinayana has a pejorative connotation
(because it suggests a less compassionate and perhaps selfish interest in
enlightenment), and non-Mahayana schools did not use this term to
describe themselves. Still, the contrast between the terms Hinayana
and Mahayana does illustrate how Mahayana Buddhism saw itself: as
a greater vehicle, emphasizing compassionate service on the path to
enlightenment.
Besides compassion, the other principal differentiating feature of
Mahayana Buddhism is the emphasis placed on the perfection of wisdom. The key to a perfect wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism involves
realizing what is called emptiness (sunyata). The Bodhisattva, it is said,
sees the world as empty. He or she realizes that all things, including
objects, selves, aggregates and dharmas, are empty. Even the very truth
of emptiness is asserted to be empty. This chapter focuses on the concept
of emptiness; the next chapter focuses on the figure of the Bodhisattva,
the role of compassion, and the idea and employment of what are called
Skillful Means in Mahayana Buddhism. In so doing, these two chapters

1 Thus, for instance, the term mahatma (maha and atma), means great soul (an
honourific title associated with Mohandas K. Gandhi).

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aim to give, not a full presentation of Mahayana Buddhism, which would


involve delving into its several influential schools, figures, and regional
developments, but a thematic presentation of the tradition through a discussion and examination of central concepts and aspects.1

The Perfection of Wisdom and Emptiness

The Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras are key texts of the


Mahayana tradition. As noted above, representative sutras from this collection include the 8000 Line sutra, the Heart sutra and the Diamond sutra.
Prajnaparamita refers to a wisdom (prajna) that has gone beyond and is
from the other side, as in from the other side of a river. The connotation is a wisdom that is an enlightened understanding. This wisdom
is carried from the experience of enlightenment back to Samsara, and
used to help those caught up in the cycle of Samsara and suffering. This
perfect wisdom and great compassion are the distinguishing features of
the Bodhisattva.
According to the Abhidharma, there is no self that is independent of
the ever-changing aggregates. The aggregates are composed of dharmas,
and according to the Abhidharma, only the dharmas are ultimately real.2
The Perfection of Wisdom sutras reject this. They assert that all is empty
and without substance, including the aggregates and dharmas.3 The Heart

1 This was also the approach taken in the discussion of the Abhidharma in
Chapter Twelve. There are many good resources for the reader to follow up
on schools and regional developments in Mahayana, such as Madhyamaka,
Yogacara, Tibetan, Hua Yen, Chan or Zen Buddhism; the Bibliography
provides some information on these.
2 C.f., Williams: But while there is no Self at all, and all things are empty of
Self, for the Abhidharma there must exist some things which have primary
existence The absence of Self cannot mean that there are actually no
primary existents at all. Williams (2000), pp. 134-35.
3 Williams describes this feature of these texts: What is immediately apparent to anyone who glances at a Perfection of Wisdom text is the endless list
of things that are said to be empty, like a magical illusion. This is indeed
the principal philosophical teaching of the Prajnaparamita literature.
Williams (2000), pp. 134-35.

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sutra portrays the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (or Avalokita, as in the


passage just below), who is regarded as the Bodhisattva of compassion.
In this sutra, Avalokiteshvara describes the perfect wisdom of enlightenment. His audience includes Sariputra, who is a disciple of the Buddha,
and is portrayed as a representative of Abhidharma thought. The sutra
tells us: Avalokita, the holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the
deep course of the wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down
from on high, he beheld but five heaps, and he saw that in their ownbeing they were empty.1 In this passage, Avalokiteshvara sees himself
and sees only five heaps, which are the five aggregates, which he then
sees are empty and without own being. This passage conveys, not
only that there is no self apart from the aggregates, but that there is no
substance to the aggregates; they, as with the self, are empty. To be
empty is to lack own-being (svabhava).
The Argument from the Aggregates, discussed in Chapters Four
and Eight, is an argument for the doctrine of No Self. The method
of argumentation employed in the Argument from the Aggregates is
empiricist: no permanent self independent of the ever-changing aggregates is observed. Instead, all that is observed are the ever-changing
aggregates. The argument concludes that a permanent self independent
of the aggregates is not justified. However, the existence of the aggregates and the dharmas that compose them does seem justified for these
are observed. Furthermore, on the basis of this observation, the dharmas may be said to have own-being. This is because everything else is
observed to be composed of dharmas, but the dharmas are not observed
to be composed of anything else; they are the endpoints of analysis, the
smallest units observed. This is the view of the Abhidharma. However,
Avalokiteshvara takes issue with this. He asserts that the five aggregates
are empty of own-being. Likewise, the dharmas the constituents of the
aggregates in the Abhidharma systems are empty as well. This is not
to assert that the dharmas are impermanent or passing substances (which
the Abhidharma fully endorses), but that they are not independently real

1 From the Heart Sutra in Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, p. 152.

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substances or existents at all, impermanent or not. The self is empty of


own-being; the aggregates are empty of own-being; and the dharmas
are empty of own-being. And since the world of experience is ultimately
composed of dharmas in the view of the Abhidharma, the implication is
that nothing in this world has own-being. Everything is empty.
Consider again Nagasenas analogy of the self with a chariot. Nagasena
tells King Milinda that his name is Nagasena, but then adds that this is a
mere label and does not stand for an ego or self. He explains that he is no
more than a composition of impersonal parts, similar to how a chariot
is a composition of parts, without an essence or core. The analogy is
used to convey that Nagasena is empty of a substantive self. But in doing
so, it seems to imply that the aggregates the composing parts are
real. After all, while the chariot may not be an independently existing
entity for reason of being composed of parts, it would seem that the
parts of the chariot exist with own-being (presuming these parts dont
themselves have parts, in which case it would be the ultimately impartite
composing parts which would seem to have own-being). They should
be what ultimately exists for it is these parts which come together to
form the chariot (and without which there would be no chariot). By
analogy, while the self may be empty of own-being, it would seem that
the ultimate parts of the self the dharmas must have own-being
(svabhava). This is the implication that the Abhidharma draws. However,
this implication is not drawn in the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Again,
the self is empty, and so are the aggregates, and so are the dharmas of
which they are composed. All is empty, says Avalokiteshvara to Sariputra
in the Heart sutra: Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with
emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate,
not deficient or complete.1
All truths and teachings are said to be empty as well, and this includes
those teachings pertaining to the very notion of emptiness itself. Gethin
describes this point:

1 From the Heart Sutra in Buddhist Texts through the Ages, p. 152.

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The teaching of emptiness should not be read, as it sometimes


appears to be, as an attempt to subvert the Abhidharma theory
of dharmas as a whole. After all it applies to the constructs of all
Buddhist theory, including the Mahayana and, crucially, itself:
there are no bodhisattvas and no stages of the bodhisattva path.
Two points are of importance here. First, we are concerned here
with the perfection of wisdom, how the world is seen by the
awakened mind. Secondly the perfection of wisdom texts presents
what they have to say about wisdom not as an innovation but as a
restatement of the original teaching of the Buddha.1
Emptiness extends to truths and concepts. For a concept to be empty
means it makes no ultimately real distinction. This is contrary to the
way we ordinarily comprehend concepts, which is to think of them as
making real distinctions. Likewise, we ordinarily view objects as having
own-being. For instance, I look at a pen and paper on my desk and
see them as distinct and independent objects. I can look at each and
see it without seeing or thinking of a connection between them or
with anything else. Likewise, the concept pen and the concept paper
mark real distinctions in my thoughts. Each of these objects is causally
dependent (i.e., they wouldnt be on my desk were it not for a series of
anterior causes which led to them being here). Nonetheless, they are
experienced by me as being independent objects and without thought
given to their causes. In short, I see the pen and paper as having ownbeing, and thus as non-empty. This applies not only to the pen and paper,
but to other objects I encounter, including the contents of my mind. For
instance, I look within and encounter different thoughts and feelings,
memories and images. While these are not without their interrelations, I
can still observe each in my minds eye as being an independent mental
state. Since we ordinarily see things, both internally in our minds and
externally in the world, as having own-being, emptiness is contrary to
our ordinary approach to seeing things. And since we ordinarily take

1 Gethin (1998), p. 236.

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concepts to make real distinctions between objects or events, emptiness


is contrary to our ordinary approach to employing concepts. Seeing and
conceiving in the way we ordinarily do, it is held, is the unenlightened
perspective.
The enlightened viewpoint is supposed to not objectify or attach
to objects of any sort, including objects in our minds such as thoughts
and feelings. There simply are no independent objects of awareness.
Avalokiteshvara further states in the Heart sutra: Here, O Sariputra,
form is emptiness, and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not
differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form,
that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form. The same is true
of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.1 This is not to say
that the enlightened mind experiences no thoughts or feelings, but that
the awareness of these does not involve viewing them as independent
objects or events in the mind. Our use of different words to refer to
different thoughts and feelings suggests to us that they are independent
mental events. However, the enlightened viewpoint sees them, along
with everything else, as empty.
Notice that this is not merely to advocate for a belief in emptiness, for
someone may believe all objects are empty of own-being but still experience their surroundings and the contents of their minds as populated by
distinctly existing objects and events. Instead, the enlightened viewpoint
involves seeing and experiencing the world as being empty of own-being.
Again, this is not to say distinctions and objects are no longer observed.
The experience of emptiness, we can say, is not an experience of an

1 Also from the Heart Sutra: Therefore, O Sariputra, where there is emptiness there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor
consciousness; no eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body or mind; no
forms, nor sound, nor smell, nor taste, nor touchable, nor object of mind; no
sight-organ-element, and so forth, until we come to: no-mind-consciousness-element; there is no ignorance, nor extinction of ignorance, and so
forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay
and death; there is no suffering, nor origination, nor stopping, nor path;
there is no cognition, no attainment, and no non-attainment. From the
Heart Sutra in Buddhist Texts through the Ages, p. 152. See also the Heart Sutra
in Buddhist Scriptures, pp. 162-63.

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overwhelming grey muddle with no observed distinctions in the world.1


But it does mean that distinctions and objects are not observed or experienced as being fundamentally real, and herein is supposed to lie the
perfect wisdom.
The enlightened or awakened mind is supposed to see all things as
empty, including emptiness itself. Experiencing emptiness entails not
seeing things as having own-being, and not thinking of concepts as
making real distinctions, for it is things and distinctions that are said
to be empty. The distinction between empty and non-empty is not,
in the Mahayana view, an ultimately real distinction because the very
notion of an ultimately real distinction is contrary to emptiness. The
claim of emptiness does not exclude itself when it holds all concepts
to be empty. The emptiness of emptiness is due to a dependence on
things being empty, that is, on things being conventionally dependent.
To elaborate, things and selves are said to be empty of own-being; they
are conventionally arrived at, not ultimately real, and to see emptiness is
to see them as such. To see emptiness in the world is to see the conventional dependence of things and concepts. This means that if there were
no empty things, or no empty concepts that mark distinctions between
empty things, then there would be no emptiness; there would be nothing to be empty. Emptiness is thus differentiated from nothingness: if
there are no empty things; if there are no conventionally derived objects
or distinctions, then while there may be nothingness, there is no emptiness. Emptiness is a claim about conventional existence, and its truth
is dependent on this conventional existence. And this is again to say
emptiness is itself empty. There are no ultimate truths or independent
existences, according to the claim of emptiness, but only that which
is conventionally true and dependently arisen. Garfield, in speaking of
Nagarjuna, the great Mahayana philosopher of the Madhyamaka school,
explains this as follows:

1 The American philosopher William James claimed that conceptual distinctions are the basis of all thought and coherent experience: that when a baby
has experiences but still lacks ways of making distinctions, the babys world
is merely a blooming, buzzing confusion.

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To see the table as empty, for Nagarjuna, is to see the table as


conventional, as dependent. But the table that we so see when we
see its emptiness is the very same table, seen not as the substantial
thing we instinctively posit, but rather as it is. Emptiness is hence
not different from conventional reality it is the fact that conventional reality is conventional. Therefore it must be dependently
arisen, since it depends upon the existence of empty phenomena.
Hence emptiness is itself empty.1
The status of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism is not like that of
dharmas in the Abhidharma. Emptiness does not have own-being. The
Bodhisattva who sees all things as empty does not see himself, or his
view of the world, as ultimately true or real, for this would not be to
view all things as empty. The perspective of emptiness the enlightened
perspective that comes from beyond thus involves humility.
The distinction between Samsara and Nirvana, or between unenlightened existence and enlightened existence, is also recognized to
be empty. There is no real distinction between Samsara and Nirvana.
This point, and the emptiness of distinctions in general and of emptiness itself, is made with expansive consideration by Nagarjuna in his
Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). In Chan
or Zen Buddhism, this point is expressed in saying that we all already
have Buddha Nature or enlightened nature (for if all distinctions are
empty, so is the distinction between not being enlightened and being
enlightened). There is no fundamental distinction between not being
a Bodhisattva and being one. Thus, the task of becoming enlightened
is not one of becoming something different from what we are, but of
realizing what we are already. And this involves realizing the emptiness
of the distinctions we apply and that distance us from realizing what we
are already. There is an epistemic challenge here that involves coming
to not know what we think we know, and take for granted, in our ordinary experiences of ourselves and the world, in which we readily apply

1 Garfield (1994), p. 232. Also see Garfield (2002).

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concepts and presume the distinctions we arrive at to be non-empty and


real.
The doctrines of Impermanence, Dependent Origination and No
Self are based upon an observation of the aggregates. The aggregates are
observed to arise and pass; causal connections between the aggregates
are observed; and no permanent self independent of the aggregates is
observed. The empirical method is used to justify these doctrines but, as
noted, this same method seems to justify the existence of the aggregates
and dharmas (for while no self is observed, the aggregates and dharmas
are observed). The method of observation, it seems, justifies the nonemptiness of the dharmas and aggregates. The claim of emptiness denies
this, but that does not mean that emptiness is at odds with these basic
doctrines, or with the method of observation employed in their support.
This warrants elaboration.
The Perfection of Wisdom sutras do not reject the observational or
experiential method, which is the key methodology of the Buddha.
Indeed, the realization of emptiness itself relies on this method. The
would-be Bodhisattva is supposed to be able to see, and experience,
the emptiness of all things for him or herself. The truth of emptiness is
supposed to be observed, just as the truth of the basic doctrines is supposed
to be observed. Instead, what the Perfection of Wisdom literature takes
issue with is the reifying, or ontologizing, of entities and distinctions on
the basis of observation. The basic doctrines of No Self, Impermanence
and Dependent Origination are among the first teachings of the Buddha
upon gaining enlightenment. As Gethin relates in the passage quoted
earlier, the perfection of wisdom texts present what they have to say
about wisdom not as an innovation but as a restatement of the original
teaching of the Buddha.1 The Perfection of Wisdom sutras do not challenge
these basic doctrines. They try to restore them. They challenge the
Abhidharma interpretation of these doctrines which involves an analysis
of the aggregates into ultimately existing dharmas. The observations of
the aggregates do support the basic doctrines. But the Perfection of Wisdom

1 Gethin (1998), p. 236.

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sutras assert that these observations do not additionally require seeing


the aggregates as existing independently or with own-being. Seeing
own-being involves bringing certain ontological commitments to what
is seen, and, according to the Mahayana, reflects an unenlightened and
unmindful way of seeing. It involves presuming conceptual distinctions
to be fundamental, as opposed to being conventionally arrived and useful.
This way of seeing, that sees things, self and others as having independent
existences, is what the realization of emptiness is supposed to overcome.
The enlightened perspective still observes dharmas and aggregates to
arise and pass, to be without self, and to be causally interconnected. But
more than this, it observes the dharmas and aggregates to be empty of
own-being (svabhava).
Note that the observations which justify the basic doctrines of
Impermanence and No Self are observations that the unenlightened can
undertake. These observations do not require an enlightened perspective,
or a viewpoint from beyond. Indeed, conducting a mindful observation of the aggregates, and seeing their impermanence and that there
is no self to be found among them, is a step along the Noble Eightfold
Path towards enlightenment. We are supposed to be able to see for ourselves, from our unenlightened perspectives, that there is no permanence
among the aggregates. In the Abhidharma view, these observations do
more than justify these doctrines: they justify the ultimate existence of
dharmas, for these are the starting points, the minutest particulars, of
our observations. However, in the Mahayana view, this ontologizing of
the dharmas steps beyond what is strictly there to be observed. While
dharmas are observed, the own-being or ultimate existence of dharmas
is not truly observed; it is something assumed in what is observed, and so
it may seem directly observed. Seeing own-being is not to see things as
they are, that is, as dependently arisen. It is not a necessary way of seeing;
it is a conventionally affected way of seeing. And while this point may
be accepted, seeing emptiness involves more than this recognition: it
involves directly seeing this conventional dependence in all things, and
this is not easily achieved.

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Emptiness and Dependent Origination

The doctrine of Dependent Origination is a doctrine about causal


interconnection. The aggregates are caused to arise and caused to pass,
without any truly uncaused causes. However, causal dependence does
not, by itself, imply that causes and effects cannot also be viewed as
being independent. Dependence in one sense does not deny independence in another. To elaborate, there is a clear dependence between
causes and effects: an effect would not exist without its cause, and a cause
would not be a cause if it did not have an effect. But there is also independence: a cause is presumed to be a distinct event from its effect and
vice-versa, assuming effects are not self-caused. Thus, something can be
both caused and considered independent at the same time. To illustrate,
I may describe my existence in causally dependent terms: my existence
is dependent on my parents having existed, on a continued supply of
water, food, air, and much besides. Nonetheless, for all these causes and
dependencies, I can still view myself, and be attached to myself, as an
independent person.
And so, despite acknowledging that objects and selves are dependent
upon causes, we can still readily see them as having independent standing, that is, as being non-empty. These causes and dependencies may not
figure into how we see something; for instance, we may think that these
causes exist just in the past, and do not bear on a things current standing
or nature. In contrast to this, emptiness requires that the causal interdependence of the doctrine of Dependent Origination be interpreted more
strongly. The nature of this dependence isnt such that something can be
caused and thereafter be an independent object (as in the example of me
being caused by my parents but thereafter being an independent person).
Rather, in the perspective of emptiness, everything is always viewed as
interdependent and not as a thing unto itself.
Consider another illustration: a spiders web. A spiders web seems like
it should be a good analogy for causal interdependence as a web is a network of interconnected strands. Nevertheless, when we observe the web
we can focus our attention on individual nodes, or individual strands

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(or focus on groups of nodes and strands for that matter). The nodes
and strands are causally dependent: each node of the web is a product of
crisscrossing strands, and each strand is how it is because of its relation to
the other strands and the nodes. However, this dependence need not be
something we are aware of as we attend to the nodes or strands. Instead,
as we focus our awareness on one, we can come to see it as an object
unto itself, independent of its surroundings (i.e., the other nodes and
strands). In attending to something we can easily find ourselves objectifying it, that is, seeing it as an independent object. When we do this we
dont see Dependent Origination, at least not according to the Mahayana
view of Dependent Origination, which involves seeing interdependence.
This is what emptiness requires. We may believe that everything exists
dependently, but the realization of emptiness involves experiencing and
seeing this in all that we experience and see, without exception. This is
none too easily done given our ordinary way of seeing ourselves and the
world.
When I look around my office, for instance, I see papers, pens, cups,
books, lights, and many more things. I know that each item is causally dependent, and would not be in this room were it not for a history
of causes that led to its being here. Still, in attending to these items
I see them as independent objects. I see the things for which I have
specific names. I see what I can conceptually distinguish. I see what I
can objectify. I generally dont see the interdependencies. It is not part
of my ordinary experience of my surroundings, or of the world in general. Even our concepts of dependence and relation prioritize objects for
dependencies and relations, we tend to think, only exist between objects;
objects are logically prior, for it would seem that they must exist for
there to be dependencies and relations between them. To see an object
as existing independently is to see it as non-empty. Though once again,
emptiness does not entail not noticing objects or distinctions at all. It
does not mean not being able to focus on things, such as nodes or strands
in a web. Instead, it means seeing these objects and distinctions without
also according them an independent standing or reality. All things are to
be seen as dependently originated.

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Despite the apparent synonymy of emptiness and nothingness, they


are not the same. Experiencing emptiness is portrayed as experiencing
interdependence. This is Interdependent Arising, or as the doctrine is
called in this book, Dependent Origination. As indicated above, this
doctrine can be interpreted in a weak and strong sense. In a weak sense,
it conveys that all things are caused, and are thus dependent upon their
cause. However, aside from this dependence which may have been
at some point in the past a thing can exist independently. This is the
approach to the doctrine in the Abhidharma. The dharmas are caused
to arise and pass Dependent Origination does apply to dharmas in this
respect but nonetheless, dharmas are considered to be independent
existents. Consider a cup on my table. The Abhidharma takes my experience of the cup and considers it closely. My perception of the cup is
complex; it has distinct parts. This is taken to mean that the perception is
dependent upon these composing parts (for if the parts were different, or
came together differently, my experience of the cup would be different
as well). However, the composing parts, if they dont have parts themselves, are not dependent in this way. These ultimate parts are dharmas.
The dharmas are said to be independent existents, not because they are
uncaused events, but because they are not dependent upon composing
parts themselves (and likewise, they are presumed to not be dependent
on convention as well). They are independent particulars that come
together to form the world of our experience. To be clear, the dharmas
are not regarded as an exception to Dependent Origination. To the contrary, the Abhidharma promotes a view that is alleged to be in line with,
and also explain, the basic doctrines. The aggregates and the dharmas
that compose them are caused to arise and pass. They are portrayed as
monkeys swinging along branches and this movement in and out of our
attention is not without cause. But having causes is not taken to imply
a lack of svabhava or own-being. However, according to the Mahayana
view of emptiness, interpreting Dependent Origination so as to allow for
the independence of dharmas is interpreting it weakly, and also wrongly.
According to the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, this was not the original
understanding of Dependent Origination of the Buddha. The original

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understanding, it is alleged, is of emptiness. This understanding is supposed to reflect the enlightened point of view, and was shared only
with the Buddhas advanced disciples who were ready to appreciate it.
Correctly interpreting Dependent Origination is not merely an academic
concern. It is thought to be integral for fully overcoming attachment
and suffering. In Chapter Ten it was noted that the Buddha rebuked
his disciple Ananda when he asserted that Dependent Origination was
simple (after all, causal dependence, at first sight, does not seem to be a
problematic notion). The Buddha responded that it was subtle and profound. In the Mahayana view, this is because it is about emptiness. The
enlightened perspective of emptiness involves not seeing the world as
comprised of independent objects, be these dharmas or anything else.
But this does not entail it is an experience of nothing or nothingness.
It involves seeing and experiencing the interdependent nature of reality, with no exceptions, as Mahayana Buddhism attests that Dependent
Origination was originally intended.

Emptiness and Non-Duality

All distinctions are empty, according to the claim of emptiness. None


is ultimately real. This includes not just distinctions between objects.
It also includes the distinction between subject and object. Thus, the
distinction between my observation of an object and the object observed
is, from the perspective of emptiness, not an ultimately real distinction.
This is a non-dualistic perspective, and it is worth making clear just
how extraordinary this is. For instance, we tend to think that there is a
real distinction between my perception of a can of Grape Crush and the
can itself; and between my internal observation of my desire for Grape
Crush and the desire itself. We presume that there is a real distinction
between our subjective appreciation of an object and the object itself,
whether this is an external object or an internal object in our minds eye.
Our experiences and observations, both internal and external, are generally dualistic. We distinguish between self and world. We distinguish

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between experience and the world we experience. From the viewpoint


of emptiness, however, all such distinctions are empty. Once again, this
is not to say that these and other distinctions cannot be observed from the
viewpoint of emptiness. Rather, it is to say that they are observed with
the appreciation of being empty, insubstantial and only conventionally
real. The Bodhisattva is supposed to be able to observe the aggregates
and dharmas, see them arise and pass, and see that there is no permanent
self among them. He is supposed to be able to do this without experiencing the aggregates and composing dharmas as being independently real
entities; and furthermore, without experiencing the distinction between
himself as observer and the aggregates observed as an ultimately real distinction. Rather, he is to see this distinction between subject and object,
as with all other distinctions, as being conventionally dependent.
From the viewpoint of emptiness, the world and the experience of it
are not independent of each other. From our ordinary, unenlightened
perspective, the contrary seems true. While our experiences are causally
dependent on the world, the world itself is taken to exist independently
of our experiences of it. The objective world and our subjective experience of it are distinct, we think. But again, from the perspective of
emptiness, there is no such independence. The object does not exist
independently of the experiencing subject and vice-versa. It follows that
the question of veridicality of whether the experience of emptiness is
true to the world, or correctly corresponds to the way the world really
is is inadmissible. This question presumes a real distinction between
experience and reality that emptiness finds empty.
Emptiness does not represent the world as a dualistic experience
represents the world. The two ways of experiencing are not
commensurate in their ability to depict a reality existing outside of the
experience, for this is only possible with a dualistic experience. With the
perspective of emptiness there is no real distinction between experience
and world, and this means that, for the one experiencing emptiness, the
experience of emptiness is ipso facto the world. There just is no independent world outside of experience in the viewpoint of emptiness. This is
not solipsism, however, for solipsism presumes that the self is real and

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non-empty.1 The experience of emptiness is thus quite unlike ordinary


and allegedly unenlightened experiences. Note that this does not mean
that the experience of emptiness physically changes the world. In the
view of unenlightened observers, the world is as it ever was. Clearly
though, the world is different for the enlightened observer who comes
to see it as empty.
Attachment to self, the source of suffering in the Buddhist sense, is
dualistic. This is evident with cravings which involve a subjects attachment to objects of craving (be these external objects or states of mind).
Also, attachment to self presumes a real distinction or separation between
that which is self and that which is not self. This is a discerning attachment that gives distinction and privilege to its own states. Alternatively
said, attachment to the aggregates involves attaching a core sense of self
to the aggregates such that they are distinguished as ones own and held
fast and dear. In the perspective of emptiness though, the objects of
cravings, and the boundary between self and not-self, are recognized as
being insubstantial and not ultimately real. The experience of emptiness
does not admit the conditions that are necessary for craving and attachment to self. As a result, the experience of emptiness is without suffering
in the Buddhist sense.
It might seem that the experience of emptiness is similar to that of
Atman and Brahman, respectively the True Self and Ultimate Reality of
the Upanishads. Both involve non-dualism and both are identified with
the end of suffering and enlightenment. Also, the interconnectedness or
interdependence of all reality that is supposed to be realized with emptiness might seem similar to the oneness of all reality that is supposed to
be realized with Brahman. Both emptiness and Brahman deny ultimate
reality to distinctions between objects. Emptiness may thus seem to be
monism by another name. While there are similarities, there are also
crucial differences. Emptiness, as with No Self, is negatively conveyed.
It is a repudiation of independent existence. Brahman and Atman are,

1 And neither is this metaphysical idealism, which presumes mind, or mental


phenomena, are real and non-empty.

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comparatively speaking, positively portrayed. Brahman is the Ultimate


Reality, and Atman the True Self. This is a difference between negative
versus positive descriptions of reality. However, this difference is not
simply descriptive or semantic. It involves a difference in approach and
objective.
To elaborate, both Upanishadic monism and Mahayana emptiness
deny ultimate reality to distinctions between objects. But monism asserts
that there is one true reality (or one true object we might say): Brahman.
Emptiness abjures such talk and the metaphysics that comes with it. The
Perfection of Wisdom sutras do not assert that emptiness is an ultimate reality. To the contrary, they assert that emptiness is itself empty. Emptiness
is empty because the conventional dependence which underlies the reality of objects and distinctions also underlies the truth of the claim of
emptiness. That is, emptiness is a claim about the conventional existence
of all that is deemed true or real, and thus it applies to itself. Brahman, in
contrast, does not exist dependently or conventionally; indeed, monism
does not seem to even allow for relations of dependence (for if there
is ultimately only one thing, then there are ultimately no relations
between things). There is an affirmation of a metaphysics with Brahman
and monism that is notably absent with emptiness. The contrast is stark:
emptiness is a repudiation of independent reality whereas Brahman is an
affirmation of an independent reality.
This repudiation of independent reality suggests a reduced potential
for craving and attachment. This perhaps is the most significant difference. Brahman and Atman, at least from the Mahayana perspective
of emptiness, retain a basis for attachment and thus suffering whereas
emptiness conveys that there is no real basis for attachment. There is no
ultimate reality to attach to according to the viewpoint of emptiness for
even emptiness itself is deemed empty. Since attachment is at the root of
suffering, an approach that eschews any real basis for attachment arguably facilitates the overcoming of suffering.
Still, significant claims are made about emptiness in Mahayana
Buddhism and these are taken to be true. For example, the claim that
no objects exist independently is held to be true and the contrary false.

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While such assertions are made, and considered useful, they are not
regarded as being ultimately true. Not from the perspective of emptiness, that is. They are only conventionally true, as with all claims to
truth. From the perspective of emptiness, the distinction between true
and false, or between ultimately real and conventionally real, is itself
empty.1 Statements about emptiness are but empty statements.
This warrants further explanation. Emptiness is spoken of as if it were
an ultimate truth. The claim that all is empty is asserted with finality.
The notion of two truths between conventional and ultimate is one
that we have encountered previously. It is applied here as well, but differently. In the Abhidharma, the dharmas were considered to be ultimately
real, and all that is composed of dharmas to be only conventionally and
dependently real. With emptiness, however, the distinction between
ultimate and conventional is not registered as an ultimately real distinction. To elaborate, conventional truth involves speaking of selves and
objects. They are spoken of as if they were real, but recognized to be
only conventionally real. Ultimate truth involves the recognition that
selves and objects are empty and not ultimately real. This distinction
between conventional truth and ultimate truth allows us to continue
speaking of selves and things as distinct existents while recognizing
that these are conventional ways of speaking and not ultimate truths.
However, this distinction between conventional and ultimate is itself
one of usefulness, that is, of conventional use. It does not mark a fundamental divide. This is to say that an ultimate truth has its ultimate
standing only conventionally. All claims about truth and existence,
which must make distinctions, are conventionally dependent. Garfield
describes this succinctly: Emptiness is, in short, nothing more than the
fact that conventionally dependent phenomena are conventional and

1 This point is also made by Nagarjuna. The reader looking for a more indepth discussion of emptiness is encouraged to look to Nagarjuna. A good
place to start, though, is with secondary writings such as Garfield (1994)
and Westerhoff (2009), or with Garfields translation with commentary of
Nagarjunas seminal Mulamadhyamakakarika, for Nagarjuna is a notoriously
cryptic writer.

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dependent. It is simply the only way in which anything can exist.1 The
usefulness of the distinction between conventional and ultimate resides
in legitimizing a way of speaking of selves and things. However, the
distinction cannot, at the end of the day, be an ultimately real or true
distinction from the point of view of emptiness. It is only linguistically useful or conventional. Notice we cannot even conceive of what it
means for the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth to
not be a real distinction, or not be ultimately true, without employing
the very distinction being repudiated. This raises the question of speaking effectively about emptiness and this will be discussed in the next
section.

Emptiness and Enlightenment

The perspective of emptiness is held to be from beyond. It is the perfect wisdom of the enlightened mind. There are problems in accurately
communicating this perspective and its way of understanding and looking at the world to the unenlightened mind. Our ordinary use of words,
including even such basic words as experience and world, involves
making distinctions that we presume are not empty and insubstantial.
We use words, among other things, to refer. Referring whether this
involves referring to people, things, events, ideas or feelings involves
distinguishing. Referring involves picking out specific objects or qualities from amongst others and speaking about them in their own right.
Generally speaking, when we refer we presume the non-emptiness of
the referent. Someone who experiences emptiness need not lose the ability to refer and speak, but the relation to words clearly must change.
Those who describe experiences of non-duality, or mystical experiences
in general, often use terms such as ultimate or true or real. This is
certainly the case in the Upanishads. These terms are presumably chosen
for seeming appropriate, and used sincerely. Yet they must also fall short

1 Garfield (2002), p. 51.

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in the case of emptiness. Words distinguish, and this presents an obstacle,


seemingly insurmountable, to accurately describing the experience of
the emptiness of distinctions, rendering that experience indescribable,
or mystical in the proper sense of the term. And if emptiness cannot be
accurately described, then it cannot be accurately conceived either (at
least not insofar as conceiving involves thinking with words).
As explained in Chapter Six, descriptions of Nirvana cannot accurately convey the nature of the first-hand experience of Nirvana to those
who have not experienced it (unlike a description of a new flavour of ice
cream which need not fail to convey the nature of the taste). However,
this failure need not be complete. If a full and accurate description is
not possible, an inaccurate one may still serve. A negative or indeterminate description, which does not pin down a specific content, may still
yield some understanding. Also, it may convey elliptically, as with the
Buddhas inspired utterance on Nirvana discussed in Chapter Six. We
will briefly consider this again to see what it conveys about emptiness.
The Buddha states:
There is, monks, a domain where there is no earth, no water, no
fire, no wind, no sphere of infinite space, no sphere of nothingness, no sphere of infinite consciousness, no sphere of neither
awareness nor non-awareness; there is not this world, there is not
another world, there is no sun or moon. I do not call this coming
or going, nor standing nor dying, nor being reborn; it is without
support, without occurrence, without object. Just this is the end of
suffering.1
This describes Nirvana using negative terms, which is not uncommon, but also employs contradictory terms (e.g., Nirvana is neither a
something nor a nothing, neither of awareness nor non-awareness, etc.).
The contradictoriness of this passage conveys elliptically that Nirvana
involves a role for non-dualism. That is, the inference can be drawn

1 From Gethin (1998), pp. 76-77. Also in Williams (2000), pp. 49-50.

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from contradictory dualistic descriptions that understanding Nirvana


dualistically is impossible, and thus that there is a role for non-dualism
in the realization of Nirvana. This was discussed in Chapter Six. We
may add here that this inspired utterance seems to also be an expression of emptiness through its systematic consideration and rejection of
content to Nirvana. The inspired utterance conveys that Nirvana is
empty of any and all content. Nirvana does not involve reaching some
other world (which, according to the inspired utterance, would have
to be a world without earth, water, fire, or wind; with neither awareness nor non-awareness, neither coming nor going, etc.). Instead, it
involves experiencing this world as empty. All the distinctions named in
the inspired utterance between earth and water, coming and going,
awareness and non-awareness, etc. are to be experienced as insubstantial and empty. Although distinctions and dualistic categories may still
be discerned, they are to be discerned without being accorded a substantive and independent reality. And this conveys that emptiness involves
experiencing interconnectedness and unity.
Emptiness, as with Nirvana, is generally described negatively, in terms
of what it does not involve. Indeed, the word itself emptiness is a
one-word negative description. A positive description provides a focus
and goal that may be more susceptible to attachment than a negative
description that does not carry ontological implications. For instance,
and as noted in the previous section, the descriptions of Brahman as a
permanent ultimate reality and Atman as the True Self are positive and
assert a metaphysics that may be more prone to craving and attachment.
In contrast, the negative descriptions of emptiness and Nirvana suggest
the absence of a real basis for craving and attachment. The claim that all
is empty self, aggregates, dharmas, and all forms conveys to us that
there is truly nothing to grasp, nothing to attach to, and no possibility of
grasping or attaching. There are truly no others, no objects, no experiences, no thoughts, no principles, no truths and no falsehoods to which
to attach; and no self with which to attach. The lengthy listing of things
that are empty signifies the importance and extent of non-attachment in
the pursuit of enlightenment.

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Emptiness and compassion are the key marks of Mahayana Buddhism.


As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the name Mahayana the
greater vehicle conveys the centrality of compassion, for the objective
of the individual adept is not individual enlightenment, but enlightenment and freedom from suffering for all. The role of compassion will
be discussed in the next chapter, but the point that will be briefly considered in closing this chapter is the relation between compassion and
emptiness. These are both pillars of Mahayana Buddhism, and there is
a close connection. The emphasis on compassion is an emphasis away
from self. Ones concern with ending ones own suffering is not to be put
before a concern for the suffering of others. In fact, the ideal is that ones
self-concern be put away in order to focus on alleviating the suffering
of others. Compassion is not only to be realized in ones efforts, but also
in ones intentions and motives. One is to be moved by the suffering of
others, to feel for others and to want to help others. This is a genuine
compassion and, by removing barriers between oneself and others, it
helps lead to the realization of No Self (this will be elaborated more fully
in the next chapter). In this respect, compassion furthers the realization
of emptiness. Realizing emptiness involves seeing interconnectedness or
interdependence, and this involves seeing oneself not as unique or special
or more deserving of the alleviation of suffering. Attachment to self is an
obstacle to realizing emptiness and the exercise of a genuine compassion
helps to remove this obstacle.
Moreover, the emphasis on compassion in Mahayana Buddhism tells
us that realizing emptiness is not simply a cognitive shift but also an
affective one, a change in feelings and emotions. It is not simply a matter of changing perspectives, such as may be done by trying on a new
pair of glasses, but is more fully transforming. Recall that Gautama,
upon leaving his fathers palace, met two yogis who taught him meditational techniques. The first yogi, Alara Kalama, taught him to enter
the sphere of nothingness and the second, Udakka Ramaputra, the
sphere of neither cognition nor non-cognition (which, on the surface,
seems to have been a non-dualistic state). These experiences gave him a
brief reprieve from suffering a comfortable abiding but his troubles

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and anxieties arose afresh afterwards. It was not the remedy he sought.
His attachments remained firmly rooted. The implication to draw here is
that the challenge of enlightenment is not merely cerebral or cognitive,
such as getting oneself into a certain state of mind through a meditation
technique. The challenge is to more fully transform. The whole person
is to be made over. Mahayana Buddhism conveys that for this compassion is integral, and that this was always part of the Buddhas original
message. The mind needs to be trained, and the body disciplined, but
also the heart must go out to others. The idea is that to realize emptiness,
one must not only see interconnectedness, but also feel interconnectedness. This involves feeling for others as for oneself. Mahayana Buddhism
emphasizes both emptiness and compassion, and sees these objectives as
united.

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XIV
Compassion and
Skillfulness in Mahayana
Buddhism

Introduction

Th e e m ph asis on w isdom in Mahayana Buddhism is an emphasis


on the experience and understanding of emptiness of the enlightened
mind. This is the perfect wisdom of one who has gone beyond and
is expressed in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. This is one of two main
areas of emphasis in Mahayana Buddhism. The other is compassion.
According to the ancient Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa, the compassion of the Bodhisattva is the defining characteristic of Mahayana
Buddhism.1 As discussed at the end of the previous chapter, the wisdom
and compassion of the Bodhisattva are not unrelated as it is thought
that having perfect wisdom and seeing the interdependence of all things

1 See Williams (1989), pp. 47-48.

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involves understanding and feeling for the suffering of others. Seeing


emptiness in all things and feeling empathy for all beings are coupled in
the Bodhisattva. This chapter will philosophically examine the role of
the Bodhisattva, the significance of compassion, and the employment of
what are called Skillful Means in Mahayana Buddhism. These are key
aspects of Mahayana Buddhism. It is by way of a focus on central concepts and aspects that this chapter and the previous one, which focused
on the concept of emptiness, aim for a thematic presentation and general
assessment of Mahayana Buddhism.1
Mahayana Buddhism accepts the Noble Truths and the basic doctrines
of No Self, Impermanence, and Dependent Origination. Although, as
was discussed in the previous chapter, Mahayana Buddhism places an
emphasis on emptiness in its understanding of these early doctrines,
in contrast to the Abhidharma and its emphasis on the dharmas. But
the most significant difference between Mahayana and non-Mahayana
traditions is not doctrinal but a matter of practice and its motivation.
Specifically, the path to enlightenment is to be followed with a concern
for overcoming the suffering of all, rather than a concern with alleviating the suffering of oneself.2 This is the compassionate motivation, and
oath, of the Bodhisattva.

The Bodhisattva

In the Mahayana tradition, it is held that the great compassion and selfsacrifice of the Bodhisattva leads eventually to Parinirvana. Parinirvana
is held to be the final Nirvana of an enlightened being, generally thought

1 As described in the previous chapter, this is not to give a complete presentation of Mahayana Buddhism; this would involve a significant discussion of
its schools and regional developments. The Bibliography does provide some
sources for a further reading of Mahayana Buddhism.
2 As Williams states: in the final analysis what makes a follower of
Mahayana is not robes, rules, or philosophy. It is motivation, intention. The
Mahayana as a whole is a particular vision of what the final motivation and
goal of serious practitioners should be. Williams (1989), p. 102.

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to be achieved upon the death of the body and dissolution of the aggregates. That is, it is held to be not only an end to suffering (Nirvana), but
a final end: an end to the cycle of rebirth or Samsara. For this reason
it is also described, in modern Buddhist usage, as Nirvana without
remainder, for it is without the causes and attachments that would lead to
further rebirth.1 The Bodhisattva is said to be able to achieve Parinirvana
as a result of endeavouring towards ending the suffering of all. Whereas
the Arhat, who is perhaps unfairly portrayed in the Mahayana tradition
as being concerned primarily with his own suffering, is alleged to be
unable to achieve Parinirvana.
The notion of a final Nirvana, without the possibility of a return
to suffering, raises questions about whether and how Parinirvana is to
involve a continued, unsuffered existence outside of the cycle of death
and rebirth. If there is no continued existence for the enlightened being,
then the finality of final Nirvana would seem to signify only the finality
of death (i.e., there is no possibility of a return to a suffered existence only
because there is no existence beyond death). If there is continued existence, and it is a personal continuation outside of the cycle of Samsara,
then this would be an example of Eternalism and violate the doctrine
of No Self.2 Thus, the only continued existence that is admissible is an
impersonal continuance and this may proceed as follows: the world continues on after death, and since the enlightened being realizes he is not
truly distinct from the world (as this is entailed by his realization of emptiness), the continued existence of the world is his continued existence
as well; this is not oneness with the world (Brahman), but a realization
of the lack of a real separation from the world. In addition, Parinirvana
is sometimes held to be a fuller Nirvana, or a higher level of Nirvana,

1 Williams notes that nirvana without a remainder is sometimes referred to


in modern Buddhist usage (probably incorrectly) as parinirvana, restricting
nirvana to nirvana with a remainder. Williams (2000), p. 49. Williams
cites Gethin who states: Modern Buddhist usage tends to restrict nirvana
to the awakening experience and reserve parinirvana for the death experience. Gethin (1998), p. 76.
2 Difficulties raised within Buddhism with the notion of a personal continued
existence beyond death were also elaborated in Chapter Eleven on Karma
and Rebirth.

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that is superior in quality.1 The Buddha is reputed to have said that he


was neither man nor god, but a Buddha an enlightened one, and for
some this enlightenment is thought to confer a supra-human status. The
Bodhisattva, like the Buddha, is similarly regarded as a superior being
for reason of having achieved a greater enlightenment (i.e., greater than
that of the Arhat). This greater enlightenment is Parinirvana. However,
this notion of different levels of Nirvana superior versus inferior, fuller
versus less full is unclear. While it makes sense to say there are degrees
or stages leading up to Nirvana, the idea that Nirvana itself admits of
degrees or stages is more difficult to comprehend. An experience of
Nirvana that still included some suffering, or still included some attachment to self, is not Nirvana (i.e., it is not an extinguishing of suffering,
but only approaching the extinguishing of suffering). An end to suffering
may be approached, but the end must be an end and not a matter of
degree. Or so it would seem.2
What is clear concerning Parinirvana is that it is regarded as the preserve of the Bodhisattva, not the Arhat. The Bodhisattva is described as
being concerned with the suffering of others, to the extent of spending
his or her life alleviating the suffering of others. The Arhat is described,
and again this may be an unfair characterization from the viewpoint of
non-Mahayana traditions, as not being similarly committed to alleviating
the suffering of others. This commitment to others is a mark of the great
compassion of the Bodhisattva. It is also said of the Bodhisattva, and not
the Arhat, that he forgoes a personal release from suffering in order to

1 Williams states that the Bodhisattva forgoes the Nirvana of the Arhat (and
the Pratyekabuddha, one who achieves enlightenment on his own) but does
not forgo the full Nirvana of the Buddha which is attained through the
selfless Bodhisattva way: Generally, the Mahayana Bodhisattva does not
postpone or turn back from nirvana. Rather he or she rejects the nirvanas of
the Arhat and Pratyekabuddhas, at least as final goals, and aims for the full
nirvana of the Buddha. William (1989), p. 53.
2 If Parinirvana is to be understood as superior to Nirvana only because there
is no possibility of a return to a life of suffering thereafter, then this is at
least conceptually clearer. This is the notion of a final Nirvana; it is superior
because it is a final end to suffering. As noted, this raises its own questions
and this is discussed immediately above.

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help others overcome suffering. This forgoing of personal enlightenment


is supposed to convey that the would-be Bodhisattva does not place ending his own suffering above that of ending the suffering of others. This
renunciation of a personal interest in enlightenment is thus also a mark
of the great compassion of the Bodhisattva.
To be clear, there are presumed to be two self-sacrifices here: committing ones life to helping others overcome suffering and forgoing
personal enlightenment in order to fully commit to helping others overcome suffering. The first clearly involves self-sacrifice. The second is less
clear and it is worth exploring why. This exploration will take the form
of trying to understand and answer this question: must the adept the
would-be Bodhisattva forgo personal enlightenment in order to fully
commit to helping others overcome suffering? Helping others is a given
for the Bodhisattva. And note that this means the would-be Bodhisattva
does not become a Bodhisattva before significantly committing to helping others (this is why the terms would-be Bodhisattva and adept
are being used). A Bodhisattva is made through great compassion. The
question here is whether it additionally makes sense to say the wouldbe Bodhisattva must renounce personal enlightenment in order to fully
commit to helping others. This is a question about whether the adept or
would-be Bodhisattva undertakes two significant self-sacrifices (helping others overcome suffering and forgoing personal enlightenment) or
really just one (helping others overcome suffering).
The first answer to be considered is that the would-be Bodhisattva
does not forgo personal enlightenment in order to fully commit to
helping others overcome suffering. The second is that the would-be
Bodhisattva does forgo personal enlightenment for this reason. There
are difficulties with both these straightforward answers. After this a third
possibility will be introduced (at the end of this section; it will then be
elaborated in the next section): the would-be Bodhisattva chooses to forgo
personal enlightenment in favour of helping others overcome suffering,
but does not thereby actually forgo enlightenment. This third answer will
be preferred for reasons that will be discussed. The reason for working
methodically through these three answers is that it is a fruitful way of

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coming to a clearer understanding of the Bodhisattva, and the role of


compassion and sacrifice in the pursuit of enlightenment.
The first answer asserts that the would-be Bodhisattva does not forgo
personal enlightenment in favour of helping others overcome suffering.
A reason for holding this is that this was ostensibly the case with the
Buddha: he spent forty-five years helping others overcome suffering, but
only after he was himself released from suffering. That is, his enlightenment, at age thirty-five, preceded his many years of compassionate service
towards others. The second answer asserts that the adept does forgo personal enlightenment in favour of helping to end the suffering of others. A
reason for holding this is that, according to the Mahayana view, personal
enlightenment should not precede a commitment to help others. That is
not the path of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattvas vow requires that the
adept not place his own release before that of others. Indeed, the very
name Mahayana indicates this: the path towards enlightenment involves
a greater vehicle and not personal enlightenment to be followed by the
enlightenment of others (this would be a small vehicle followed by a large
one, like a tugboat pulling a barge). On this answer, it is specifically the
personal enlightenment of the Arhat that is sacrificed. Also, as described,
compassion and self-sacrifice are defining features of the Bodhisattva.
This consideration further favours answer two over one for the adept
willingly forgoes a personal release from suffering in order to help others
overcome suffering. On the first answer, personal enlightenment is not
sacrificed: ones own enlightenment can precede turning to help alleviate
the suffering of others, and this suggests a lesser compassion. Based simply
on which answer displays the greater compassion and sacrifice, answer
two seems to fare better than answer one.
However, there are difficulties with the second answer also. One difficulty, already mentioned, arises with comparison to the Buddhas life.
Mahayana Buddhism draws upon what it considers to be an original
understanding of the Buddhas message, and the Buddhas life is upheld as
an example par excellence of selflessness and compassion for the would-be
Bodhisattva. The Buddha, by general account, achieved enlightenment
at the age of thirty-five, and then spent the next forty-five years of his life

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selflessly helping others overcome suffering. It is important to note here


that the Buddha was already enlightened at the time he turned to help
others overcome suffering, and so he did not forgo or postpone an initial
experience of enlightenment in order to help others overcome suffering.
Parinirvana may have had to wait until he was at his deathbed, after
spending many years helping others, but Nirvana did not. Comparison
with the example of the Buddha counts against the second answer
because it conveys that the would-be Bodhisattva, who does forgo individual enlightenment in order to help others, excels in compassion over
the Buddha. The Buddhas initial enlightenment would be relegated to
that of an Arhat, and this just does not accord with the way the Buddhas
life is revered within the Mahayana tradition. The Buddhas compassion and enlightenment are upheld as exemplary and not deficient in any
regard. The example of the Buddha conveys that enlightenment need not
be sacrificed in favour of spending a life helping others. Indeed, for the
Buddha, enlightenment was a precursor to such a life.
The second answer is also conceptually problematic. Forgoing
personal enlightenment out of a preference to help others overcome suffering implies that these can be exclusive. This does not accord with the
Buddhist sense of suffering which holds that suffering involves craving
and attachment to self. It does not make sense that overcoming craving and attachment to self should be put aside or forgone in favour of
extending compassionate service to others. To the contrary, overcoming ones cravings and attachment to self is part of extending compassion
to others. Far from being exclusive, these are mutually complementary
ends: being less attached to self helps to extend compassion to others,
and service to others is a way to overcome self-attachment. Each serves
the other. While there may be something fitting about the spirit of selflessness in forgoing personal enlightenment, it does not make sense to
actually forgo the ending of attachment to self in order to provide compassionate service.
The difficulties raised by these two answers lead to a muddle. The
Buddha is supposed to be an example of compassion for a would-be
Bodhisattva, and yet his life story conveys that he did not live a

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prominently compassionate life until after his alleged enlightenment.


Once again, this suggests that the Buddha, at the time of his enlightenment, is deficient in compassion compared to the would-be Bodhisattva
who chooses to forgo personal enlightenment in favour of helping others
overcome suffering. There is a contradiction in saying the Buddha is an
exemplar of compassion for the would-be Bodhisattva but also, at the
time of his enlightenment, was deficient in compassion compared to the
would-be Bodhisattva. If this contradiction is to be resolved while also
upholding the exemplary compassion of the Buddha, then this compassion must have been in place at the time of his becoming a Buddha. His
compassion must have been a part of his becoming enlightened (i.e.,
the Buddha did not suddenly become greatly compassionate after his
enlightenment, even though to look just at his actions suggests this).
Specifically, the apparent contradiction can be resolved by admitting
these two points: (i) becoming a Bodhisattva requires a sincere and consuming commitment to help others overcome suffering (and note that
while the commitment is to be carried out, enlightenment does not have
to wait for it to be carried out; it can proceed with this commitment
fully in place). And (ii), the Buddha did take on just this commitment
in becoming enlightened (for instance, perhaps during his six day meditation leading up to his enlightenment experience). In this resolution,
the Buddhas initial enlightenment was not that of an Arhat but of a
Bodhisattva. This is because his compassionate commitment towards
alleviating the suffering of others, even though it was yet to be carried
out, was the sincere and compelling vow of a Bodhisattva.
This takes us to the third approach to answering our question
about whether the would-be Bodhisattva does or does not forgo personal enlightenment. On this third answer, the would-be Bodhisattva
chooses to forgo personal enlightenment, but he does not thereby actually forgo personal enlightenment. These are different. Choosing to
forgo enlightenment does not entail one actually forgoes. In fact, it can
help achieve enlightenment. Choosing to forgo a personal release from
suffering in favour of helping others is to take on a whole-hearted commitment towards others. This unequivocal commitment towards others
is valuable for overcoming attachment to self. An adept who willingly

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puts aside his own pursuit of enlightenment and freedom from suffering in order to help others commits himself fully to selflessness, and
this is important for overcoming suffering in the Buddhist sense. While
the Buddha did not live a life of service to others prior to becoming
enlightened, it is reasonable to think he was committed to doing so
in becoming enlightened (and that is why his life took this direction
upon becoming enlightened). This third answer to the above question
is similar to the first in that the would-be Bodhisattva need not actually
forgo personal enlightenment; and to the second in that he does still
choose to forgo. However, it does not face the difficulties of these other
answers, and is consistent with the example of the Buddha. It will be
discussed further in the next section.

The Bodhisattva Renounces

As described above, becoming enlightened and choosing to help others


cannot be a real dichotomy, for becoming enlightened is not at odds
with a life spent helping others; they are instead mutually complementary ends. However, even though it is not a real dichotomy, this does
not mean there cannot be a real choice. On this third answer, the adept
renounces personal enlightenment, but need not actually forgo. In fact,
renouncing personal enlightenment in order to help others can be integral to attaining personal enlightenment. It can be important that the
adept renounce for this can achieve a selflessness that otherwise may
not be possible. There need be no actual forgoing; it is the sincere commitment to forgo that counts. Renouncing personal enlightenment
in favour of helping others is described by Williams as exhortatory:
There are certainly texts which speak of the Bodhisattva postponing or
turning back from some enlightenment It may be that it embodies a
form of exhortatory writing the Bodhisattva adopts a position of complete renunciation. In renouncing even Buddhahood the Bodhisattva
precisely attains Buddhahood.1 This idea will be further elaborated.

1 Williams (1989), p. 53.

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Since suffering in the Buddhist conception involves attachment to self,


trying to achieve an end to individual suffering faces a significant obstacle: a self-interested motive. Acting out of self-interest need not always
involve attachment to self. For instance, it can be in my self-interest
to eat breakfast, but eating breakfast need not involve self-attachment.
However, eating breakfast in order to satisfy ones cravings, as opposed
to eating only to meet ones bodily need, does involve self-attachment.
Overcoming attachment to self requires not being attached to the view
that the beneficiary of an end to suffering is the same self who is pursuing
an end to suffering. That is, it requires not being attached to permanence
in ones view of self. But then how is attachment to permanence of self
to be overcome? How is Nirvana to be achieved for ones future self but
also pursued without self-attachment? This third answer says that it is
by renouncing a personal interest in Nirvana. By sincerely forgoing his
claim to Nirvana in order to help others, the adept puts aside his concern
for his own present and future suffering and thereby can achieve a selflessness that is necessary for experiencing Nirvana.
This is not contradictory.1 It does mean that achieving Nirvana
for oneself requires that ultimately it not be pursued just for oneself.
Committing fully to alleviating the suffering of others is, on this
answer, a necessary step for overcoming attachment to self. Sincere
compassion leads to freedom from suffering for oneself. If this compassion and commitment to helping others is not sincere that is, if it is
motivated by a self-regard for personal enlightenment then it will not
be successful. Enlightenment must not be pursued just for oneself to be
achieved. This means that at some point in the quest for enlightenment,
ones motives must be divested of self-concern; one must cease pursuing
freedom from suffering just for oneself. Williams affirms: the result
of this is that one attains Buddhahood all the more quickly. This is
indeed the true way to Buddhahood.2 This third answer is consistent

1 Psychologists sometimes speak of paradoxical intentions that are somewhat analogous to this. Examples: the more you try to go to sleep, the more
sleep eludes you; self-consciously trying to fix your golf swing makes it
worse; trying to be happy makes you unhappy.
2 Williams (2000), p. 139.

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with the doctrine of No Self, and the understanding of suffering as


attachment to self.
It is also consistent with the example of the Buddha. The Buddha,
after enlightenment, spent forty-five years helping others overcome
suffering (this is not to say he never helped others before, but after
enlightenment it is portrayed as a consummate effort). On this third
answer, the whole-hearted commitment to help others overcome suffering was in place in his becoming enlightened, even though it was not
carried out until afterwards. If one must actually spend a life helping
others before reaching enlightenment, then the Buddha would not have
become enlightened at age thirty-five but rather only at age eighty, at
his passing. As also noted, the renunciation and commitment to helping others must be sincere and full, and the evidence of this is in the
Buddhas carrying through on the commitment for the remainder of
his life. If one makes a commitment to help others for a year, or twenty,
after which one will live for oneself, then attachment to self has not been
fully overcome in ones commitment. This third answer is consistent
with the course of events in the Buddhas life.
While renouncing the goal of personal enlightenment may be a necessary condition for enlightenment, it does not seem to be sufficient.
Presumably, if an adept forgoes the individual pursuit of enlightenment
in favour of helping others, but has not undertaken other steps towards
enlightenment (such as following through on the Noble Eightfold Path),
then this renunciation will not be sufficient for enlightenment. The
individual may be greatly compassionate, but the disciplining measures
of the Noble Eightfold Path must also be undertaken. However, if the
adept appropriately practices and follows the Noble Eightfold Path, and
sincerely forgoes the goal of personal enlightenment in favour of helping others, then this may be sufficient for fully overcoming craving and
attachment to self, and hence for becoming enlightened.
This third answer implies that the Arhat, despite being described as
enlightened, is really only at a stage on the way to becoming enlightened. A divestment of personal interest is still required for the Arhat
to reach enlightenment. Gethin observes that the Mahayana sutras provide two divergent attitudes on the path of the Arhat and the goal of

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individual enlightenment. The first attitude is that this is a real goal,


but is inferior and should be renounced for the superior attainment of
Buddhahood. This superior enlightenment is that of the Bodhisattva.
The second, classically articulated by the Lotus Sutra, sees this as not
a true goal at all. On this latter view, the ideal of the Arhat is merely a
clever device employed by the Buddha in order to get beings to at least
begin the practice of the path; eventually their practice must lead to the
one and only vehicle that is Mahayana, the vehicle ending in perfect
Buddhahood.1 On the first attitude described by Gethin, Arhatship is
an inferior but nonetheless real enlightenment.2 On the second attitude,
Arhatship is not a real attainment of enlightenment at all; it is rather a
stage on the path to becoming enlightened. The answer and interpretation being discussed in this section holds this second attitude.
Pursuing the end of suffering for everyone and not just for oneself
may be taken as too demanding and off-putting. In contrast, the promise
of a personal enlightenment, pursued by an individual for his or her
own benefit, provides enticement and incentive. The goal of personal
enlightenment can draw initiates onto a path that must, in this Mahayana
view, eventually become something more than a pursuit of a personal
goal. While individual enlightenment remains attainable, it must not
be pursued for the benefit of the individual to be attained. Gethin further states: From this perspective the difference between Hinayana and
Mahayana is effectively the difference between progressive stages of the
same path.3 Personal enlightenment provides incentive for following
the Noble Eightfold Path but this can only take one so far; to attain

1 Gethin (1998), pp. 228-29. Note that discounting the Arhat is not uncommon in the Mahayana tradition, and again, this is viewed as a prejudice by
non-Mahayana schools that uphold the enlightened status of the Arhat.
2 As described earlier, the notions of lesser and greater enlightenment, that are
respectively inferior and superior in quality, is problematic and unclear (for
an end to suffering does not seem to admit of degree).
3 Gethin (1998), pp. 228-29. Here Gethin also writes: What is characteristic
of the Mahayana vision of Buddhism is the view that the attainment of the
disciple falls so far short of full Buddhahood that it cannot be considered as
a worthy spiritual goal; contrary to the traditional formula which states the
arhat has done what has to be done he or she in fact has further work to do.

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enlightenment ones motive and goal must change. The Bodhisattva way
is required to complete the journey. The idea that Arhatship is not a
real enlightenment, but only presented as such so that it might provide
incentive for undertaking Buddhist practice, involves a notion called
Skill in Means or Skillful Means. The idea here is that the Buddha
promoted the goal of Arhatship as a skillful device to motivate followers along the Noble Eightfold Path. If it were asserted up front that
a personal interest in Nirvana must be renounced in favour of pursuing
the end of suffering of all humanity, then the ordinary self-interested
person would be hard-pressed for motivation.1
Presumably, one cannot reach the goal of ending everyones suffering;
but the sincere commitment towards this objective achieves a selflessness that may not be attainable through a self-interested pursuit of
enlightenment. However, it may not be the only way to dislodge a
self-interested motivation in the pursuit of enlightenment. Buddhist
practice undertaken without being directed by any objective or interest be this self-interested or selfless is an alternative. The idea of
maintaining Buddhist practice while being indifferent towards whether
one realizes enlightenment by it, to the extent of it ceasing to be a goal
at all, is raised in Chan Buddhism (called Zen Buddhism in Japanese). In
Chan Buddhism there is an emphasis on practice as discipline a rigorous practice without giving mind to the reason, purpose or end to be
gained from the practice. Indeed, it is part of the disciplining that one
pay no mind to the end or reason of the practice, but pay mind just to the
practice. This is perhaps an alternative approach to a non-self-interested
Buddhist practice. It removes a self-interested motive, not by replacing
it with a compassionate and selfless interest in pursuing the enlightenment of all, but by having no interest in the end to be achieved from
Buddhist practice. Still, it is through continued discipline committing to Buddhist practice all the same.

1 The notion of Skillful Means is also given vivid expression in the Parable of
the Burning House from the Lotus Sutra. This will be discussed in the next
chapter.

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Compassion and Suffering

Someone with great compassion feels the suffering of others. We might


call this the suffering of empathy. As long as such an empathetic person
knows someone else is suffering, he will suffer for them. Their suffering causes him suffering. Thus, overcoming the suffering of empathy
requires helping others overcome their suffering. At first, this seems to
fit with the idea that the Bodhisattva must renounce personal enlightenment in order to help others, for he cannot be free from suffering himself
until all are free.
While it may be true that feeling great compassion involves a kind
of suffering, this suffering of empathy is not the focus of suffering in
the Buddhist conception. This is not a suffering to be eliminated for it
comes with compassion. Feeling compassion may cause one to feel grief
or disquiet, to be unnerved and perhaps even to feel physical pain in
response to the plight of other beings. But these feelings are examples
of suffering under the first grouping in the First Noble Truth. Likewise,
a compassionate being may have a strong desire to rid others of their
suffering, and not be satisfied until fully successful. But the presence of
an unsatisfied desire is an example of suffering under the second grouping in the First Noble Truth. Neither of these are the focus of suffering
in the Buddhist conception unless they also involve attachment to self
(which is the understanding of suffering given in the third grouping in
the First Noble Truth). Thus, someone who feels great compassion for
others, and suffers from emotional and physical symptoms because of
this, need not suffer in the Buddhist sense. This is because their empathy
need not involve craving or attachment to self. Indeed, such a compassionate person would be less prone to self-attachment. The suffering that
comes with compassion is not to be eliminated. If anything, it is to be
nurtured for it is the kind of suffering that helps overcome the suffering
of self-attachment.
Since suffering in the Buddhist conception involves attachment to
self, we might conclude that it is this suffering specifically that should be
the focus of the would-be Bodhisattvas concern. That is, the would-be

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Bodhisattva should focus on helping others overcome attachment to self.


Alleviating ills and pains is still a worthy objective for these are, for
the unenlightened, generally experienced with attachment to self and
thus are still suffered in the Buddhist sense. Solely to treat ills and pains,
though, does not alleviate the suffering that is Buddhisms main concern.
The Buddha, after all, was not a curer of pain and sickness, but he is
described as leading a path out of suffering all the same. His focus was
not pain and sickness, but to help others overcome attachment to self in
their pain and sickness (and elsewhere as well). Notwithstanding, for the
would-be Bodhisattva, alleviating the suffering of others in any form
can be a selfless endeavour, and thus help in overcoming attachment
to self. Accordingly, Mahayana monks would often (and still do) focus
on alleviating physical suffering and providing medical care and other
material aid to laity. Still, the teachings of the Buddha are focused primarily on overcoming suffering in terms of craving and attachment to
self. It is towards alleviating this suffering that the Noble Eightfold Path
and the basic doctrines are directed. Again, this does not mean neglecting the pain and sickness of others, but it does mean that what should
be ultimately important, for the would-be Bodhisattva, in extending
compassion and remedy is helping others to overcome the attachment to
self in feelings of pain and sickness and not only the feelings themselves.
This is the focus of compassion of the Buddha and it is clearly different
from the focus of compassion of the medical practitioner.

Genuine Compassion

The goal of overcoming attachment to self, and its emphasis on


detachment, may seem to involve a withdrawal from affect or emotion. However, the emphasis on compassion in Mahayana Buddhism is
an acknowledgement that at least some affect or emotion is necessary.
Principally, this involves feeling compassion but also other feelings connected to this, such as grief and pain when others suffer, joy when they
are alleviated, and in general, love for others. With the requirement of

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compassion, the Buddhist adherent is charged not just with acting compassionately, but being and feeling compassionate (and as just noted, this
brings other feelings with it). This compassion and these feelings, as will
be discussed in this section, must be genuine.
Compassion counteracts the effects of states such as hatred, jealousy,
and greed. The idea is that by being consumed by compassionate feelings and thoughts, the adept will be less susceptible to hurtful or hateful
feelings and thoughts, and can turn around these aspects of his character.
Compassion does not covet or seek to take, but to give and be helpful,
and thus compassion is an antidote to greed and grasping as well. It is a
means to personality change via focus on the opposite of the states we
wish to overcome. As discussed, compassion divests of self. It focuses
outwardly, rather than inwardly, in its attentions. And it has an emotive
or affective component. It involves the feeling of caring, and not just
caring behaviour. This means that the compassionate, enlightened figure
is not fully dispassionate. As emotions are often mixed with attachment
to self, detachment from emotions can be an important part of following
the Buddhist path. This detachment, as discussed in Chapter Seven, is an
aspect of the vigilant practice of mindfulness (for mindfulness involves
detaching to some extent from occurrent states of mind in order to be
mindfully aware of them). The emphasis on compassion in Mahayana
Buddhism, however, conveys that this is not a sweeping detachment
from affect or emotion. The enlightened figure is presented as being of
genuine caring, and thus a person of feeling.
As described above, compassion, because it turns our minds outwards
to the plight of others, and not inwards to our own suffering, helps
overcome attachment to self. Compassion for others serves to lessen
attachment to ones self, and thereby lessen ones own suffering in the
Buddhist sense. However, there is a catch: if one is being compassionate in the interest of overcoming attachment to self, and ending ones
own suffering, then the objective of overcoming attachment to self is
thwarted. If the motive for being compassionate is personal gain even
if this gain is the ending of ones own suffering then the role of compassion in overcoming attachment to self cannot be fulfilled. Simply put,

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the objective of No Self cannot be met if pursued from a self-centred


motive. Thus, compassion must be pure of heart and genuine. This
means that the reasons one gives to oneself for being compassionate cannot draw from ones sense of self-interest. It is interesting that we can
justify the exercise of compassion in Buddhism on the grounds that it
can help lead to the attainment of No Self, and thus to the end of suffering in the Buddhist sense. Yet the justification to oneself for ones
compassion should not be the reason of ending ones own suffering. It
must appear, to oneself, as genuinely altruistic to have this benefit.
To further elaborate, consider the Noble Eightfold Path. Steps on
this path certainly place importance on the consideration of others. For
example, Right Action and Right Livelihood concern proper interactions with others. Nonetheless, the Noble Eightfold Path is supposed
to be something one can undertake for oneself, to eliminate ones own
suffering. This is a reason and motive for undertaking the path, including those steps which prescribe moral conduct towards others. Yet, as
discussed, a personal motivation cannot succeed in fully realizing No
Self. At some point in following the path, this reason for following
ending ones own suffering must be let go. It must come to be followed
without the motive of personal benefit. The Mahayana emphasis on
compassion accomplishes this; it is a compassion exercised for its own
sake (that is, for the sake of others and not for oneself ). Compassion is
not presented as a means towards achieving Nirvana, as is the Noble
Eightfold Path. This is important for it is precisely in not being directed
at ones personal freedom from suffering that the exercise of a genuine
compassion can more effectively lead to ones freedom from suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path is a path, and thus a means, and it is justified by the end to which it is supposed to lead. This end is usually
conceived to be personal enlightenment. For one who is unenlightened,
and attached to self, it is quite natural to think of freedom from suffering
as a personal objective. In marked contrast, the emphasis on compassion
in Mahayana Buddhism is not presented as a path leading to personal
enlightenment. Compassion is emphasized for no other reason than
the fact that others suffer. The justification ends there. The suffering of

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others is reason enough for the Mahayana goal of carrying everyone to


freedom from suffering.
The life of the Buddha presents an example of compassion for the
sake of others. Helping others overcome suffering is not presented as a
requirement of the Buddhas enlightenment, for it comes on the heels of
his enlightenment. Compassion, while it can be integral to overcoming
attachment and attaining enlightenment, is not presented as a significant
aspect of the Buddhas life leading up to his enlightenment. This presentation may have much to do with the requirement that only a genuine
compassion and not an instrumental compassion that is viewed as a
means towards personal enlightenment can help lead to enlightenment.

Skillful Means, the Arhat and the Bodhisattva

The Buddha is reputed to have spoken differently to different audiences,


weighing and delivering his words to suit the level of understanding and
spiritual maturity of the listener. This insight and ability, attributed to
the Buddha, is described as speaking and teaching with Skill in Means
or Skillful Means (upaya kaushalya). Followers may be at different stages
of spiritual development, or face different obstacles and challenges,
and for these people different and perhaps even contrary teachings
may be appropriate. The same teaching, or the same presentation of a
teaching, may not work as effectively for all audiences. The ability to
adapt teachings to the level of understanding or concerns of an audience
is wherein the skill in Skillful Means lies. The care and effort involved
in considering the nature of an audiences suffering, and how they may
need to be guided in order to overcome their suffering, is said to display
the compassion of the Buddha. The Buddhas ability to tailor teachings to individual needs was thought by some to be magical.1 While
the judgement of magical ability will be presumed to be incorrect, it

1 C.f. Kalupahana: His [the Buddhas] contemporaries, who failed to understand the psychological significance of this method of discourse, saw him

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nevertheless conveys the psychological insight the Buddha was thought


to have possessed in providing customized teachings.
The idea that the Buddha taught with Skillful Means has its origins
early in the history of Buddhism but it gains significance, and is a central
principle, in Mahayana Buddhism. The notion of Skillful Means may
be applied to all Buddhist teachings, including those presumed central
and basic, and it emphasizes a practical approach and an attitude of nonattachment to these teachings. Non-Mahayana texts provide a key source
for the notion of Skillful Means: a simile between the Buddhas teachings the Dharma (or Dhamma in Pali) and a raft. The simile conveys
that just as a raft is used to cross a river, Buddhist teachings should be
used to help overcome obstacles or reach a certain point. And just as it
would not be wise to haul a raft along on ones back after using it to cross
a river, it would likewise not be wise to hold on to teachings beyond
their usefulness. The Buddha states, the Dhamma is similar to a raft,
being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.
He adds, Bhikkhus, when you know the Dhamma to be similar to a
raft, you should abandon even the teachings, how much more so things
contrary to the teachings.1 The Raft Simile is commonly quoted but it
is not the only analogy to make this point. Another involves comparing
teachings to a series of chariots, with each one used to carry a person to
a certain point whereupon another chariot is taken up.2
The value of a raft is presented as being instrumental; its value is its
usefulness. Likewise with a teaching. To let go of a teaching once it is
no longer useful does not mean that a teaching once believed to be true
as a person possessed of the magical power of conversion. Yet there was
no magic or mystery involved. All that the Buddha did was carefully
observe the intellectual maturity and psychological state of each person and
provide a discourse that would produce beneficial consequences for him.
Kalupahana (1992), p. 66.
1
Alagaddupama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, I 22, p. 229. Also see the
Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya I 261, p. 353: the Dhamma
has been taught as similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over,
not for the purpose of grasping.
2
Rathaavinita Sutta (Discourse on the Relay of Chariots), Majjhima Nikaya I
24, pp. 240-45.

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must now come to be believed false. But it does require being able to put
aside a teaching even while it may still be considered true. This involves
a pragmatic approach to Buddhist teachings. To say that a teaching, once
learned and used, can become an encumbrance and must be put to the
side, just as a raft can become an encumbrance, means that upholding
a teaching can be an impediment to further progress on the path to
enlightenment. This may be because one can cling to the teaching; one
can become attached to what one believes to be true just as one can to
a feeling, physical object or person. Or it may be because holding fast
to the teaching impedes receptivity to something else, another teaching
perhaps, which is needed for going further or overcoming a different
obstacle. The analogy also conveys that we will not need the same raft
again for crossing another river (for if we did, then it may indeed make
sense to carry the raft with us until it is needed again). Thus, the path
to enlightenment is portrayed as a progression involving different stages,
and progressive teachings are needed to move along this path and navigate its steps and obstacles.1
The Arhat is said to have achieved individual enlightenment. Though
as discussed earlier, a different interpretation, classically articulated in
the Lotus sutra,2 holds that in fact the Arhat is not yet enlightened. On
this view, the Arhat is still attached to self because he views enlightenment as a personal goal and accomplishment. On this Mahayana
interpretation, the Arhat is only at a stage on the path towards the genuine enlightenment of the Bodhisattva, which requires a renunciation
of a personal interest in enlightenment and a compassionate dedication
towards others.3 A reason the Arhat is still presented as an enlightened
being, and Arhatship as a legitimate goal, is because this is a Skillful
Means. This will be further elaborated.

1 C.f. Harvey: Thus the overall path of Buddhism is seen as a training which
gradually moves towards the profounder teachings, just as the ocean bottom
shelves down gradually from the shore into the depths (Vin.II.238). Harvey
(1990), p. 46. Harvey draws this analogy from the Vinaya Pitaka which deals
with monastic rules for monks and nuns.
2 Gethin (1998), p. 228.
3 See again Gethin (1998), p. 229.

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The Noble Eightfold Path is presented as a path leading to individual


enlightenment, and this objective provides reason and motivation for
treading this difficult path. If a follower is told that a personal interest in
enlightenment must be given up at some point then he or she may not
begin on the path at all, or continue further if already on the path. Beginners
and others on the path to enlightenment are, to make an obvious point,
unenlightened and this is to say they are attached to self. This attachment
means motivations and reasons for actions, such as Buddhist practice, will
work best if they speak to the interests of a self. It would be hard to make
sense of why enlightenment should be pursued if personal enlightenment
must be renounced before it is reached. Why begin on a difficult road, it
may be wondered, only to renounce reaching its destination?
While renouncing personal enlightenment may be necessary for
reaching enlightenment, to be told this too soon may discourage staying
the course and rob motivation. The emphasis on the great compassion of
the Bodhisattva, and the ideal of the Bodhisattva generally, are regarded
as higher teachings for the more spiritually advanced. Teachings concerning Arhatship do not require renouncing personal enlightenment
and thus do not lead to Buddhahood on this Mahayana interpretation.
Nevertheless, these teachings can provide motivation and ready one for
the way of the Bodhisattva.1 Hence, the goal of personal enlightenment
is both useful for providing motivation for the aspirant and an obstacle
because it retains attachment to self. Teachings that promote personal
enlightenment or Arhatship may thus be described as a raft a
Skillful Means that leads only so far and must at some point be put
aside for the raft of renunciation so that the journey can be completed.
The notion of renouncing personal enlightenment seems to involve
Skillful Means in another way as well. The would-be Bodhisattva is

1 Harvey presents this view: The Arhat was seen as still having a subtle
pride, and as lacking in compassion in his hope of escaping the round of
rebirths, thus leaving unenlightened beings to fend for themselves. For those
who were prepared to listen further, the Buddha then taught that the true
Nirvana was attained at Buddhahood, and that all could attain this, even
the Arhats, who currently thought that they had already reached the goal.
Harvey (1990), pp. 92-93.

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said to renounce personal freedom from suffering in favour of working


towards freeing others from suffering. But as described earlier, this choice
presumes a dichotomy that is false. Given that suffering in the Buddhist
sense is suffering from attachment to self, it does not make sense that
ending this should be sacrificed in order to help others. As discussed,
these ends are complementary. For instance, focusing on alleviating the
suffering of others and not ones own helps one to overcome self-attachment. But as also discussed, while the dichotomy is false, approaching
it as a real choice can have a real effect. The choice to renounce a personal interest in enlightenment can help to overcome the last vestiges
of attachment to self that the personal pursuit of enlightenment allegedly cannot. In this respect, the Mahayana teaching that portrays the
renunciation of personal enlightenment in favour of helping others as
involving a real choice and dichotomy seems to be a Skillful Means. The
choice to renounce is supposed to be treated seriously, sincerely, and not
for personal benefit. Seemingly paradoxically, the effect of this can be
the very personal enlightenment that is renounced.
For renunciation to be an effective means, one should not challenge
the sense of the choice between pursuing personal enlightenment or
putting aside personal enlightenment in order to help others achieve
enlightenment. One should not question why one cannot simply pursue
both together (for if one does challenge, and does not renounce personal
enlightenment as a consequence, then there will not be the benefit of
renunciation in helping to overcome attachment to self ). Renouncing
the objective of personal enlightenment in favour of helping others
requires that one be little concerned about ones own suffering, and
more concerned with the suffering of others. It also requires that ones
desire for personal enlightenment be put aside in favour of helping others. While ones interest in personal enlightenment can be put aside,
whether or not one becomes enlightened cannot be wilfully put aside in
this way. The significance of being persuaded in the choice of renunciation requires skillfulness in its teaching.
To sum up, renouncing personal enlightenment in favour of the path
of the Bodhisattva seems to involve two instances of the employment of

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Skillful Means. The first is that, at least under the Mahayana reading of
the Arhat and Bodhisattva offered in the Lotus sutra, the Arhat does not
achieve a lesser enlightenment compared to that of the Bodhisattva, but
rather is only at a stage on the way to becoming enlightened. The renunciation of personal enlightenment is still required for the Arhat to fully
overcome attachment to self. The Skillful Means involves presenting
Arhatship as a real, even if lesser, enlightenment for this provides initial
motivation for following the Noble Eightfold Path. The second is that
the choice between personal freedom from suffering and helping others
overcome suffering is not exclusive. Presenting this as an exclusive choice
is skillful because in renouncing personal enlightenment the adept can
achieve a selflessness that is required for becoming enlightened.

An Emphasis on Practice over Belief

Attachment to self is a psychological attachment. Appropriately, overcoming attachment involves disciplined practice. Correct practice, more
than correct belief, is emphasized in Buddhism for this is the primary
means for realizing freedom from suffering. This emphasis on practice
is why Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks were able to live peaceably
in the same monasteries in the initial centuries of Mahayanas development. It is a reason why there have not been violent sectarian schisms
in Buddhism as in other religions. Buddhism is, as Williams states, an
orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy.1 This chapter will close with
two examples of this emphasis on correct practice over correct belief
from the Buddhas life. Both are drawn from Harvey: When Brahmins
asked him [the Buddha] about how to attain union with the god Brahma
after death, he did not say that this was impossible, but that it could
be attained by meditative development of deep loving-kindness and
compassion, rather than by bloody Vedic sacrifices.2 The Buddha here
shows a greater concern with moving people towards correct practice

1 Williams (2000), p. 99.


2 Harvey (1990), p. 29.

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than correct belief. This emphasis on practice conveys that it matters


less what belief someone holds, perhaps to the extent of it not mattering
whether the belief is even true, as long as the practice is compassionate
and selfless. Another example:
A general Siha, who was a great supporter of Jain monks, once
decided to become a lay disciple, but the Buddha advised him
that such a prominent person as himself should carefully consider
before changing his religious allegiances. Already impressed by the
Buddhas teaching, Siha was even more impressed by the fact that
he did not jump at the chance of gaining an influential disciple. On
affirming that he still wished to be a disciple, the Buddha advised
him that he should not deprive Jain monks by withdrawing his
generous support, but continue this while also supporting Buddhist
monks, as he now wished to do.1
General Siha was supporting good work with the Jain monks, and there
would be a loss of this if he became a Buddhist disciple and patron.
Again, the Buddha is less concerned with promoting true belief than
good practice and its consequences.
We might think that the primary goal of a teaching is the transmission of truth (in the form of true beliefs), but the primary goal of
Buddhist teachings is determined by the goal of the Buddhist path itself:
delivery from suffering. Delivery from suffering and the transmission of
truth are not exclusive objectives, to be sure, but they are not necessarily
convergent either. The emphasis on correct practice over correct belief
raises the question of whether or not a skillful presentation of teachings can countenance false or deceptive teachings as long as they help
lead followers to freedom from suffering. The next chapter, which is the
closing chapter of the book, will take up this question of the relation
between truth and teachings a question first raised in the Preface in
the context of a close discussion of the Parable of the Burning House
from the Lotus sutra.

1 Harvey (1990), p. 30. See Vinaya Pitaka I 236, Vol. 4, p. 322.

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XV
The Parable of the
Burning House A Closing
Discussion
A speci f ic qu est ion, r a ise d at the end of the previous chapter,
is whether the Buddhas employment of Skillful Means admits deceptive teachings if they are an expedient for attaining enlightenment.
This is a question concerning the relation between practice and belief in
Buddhism, and whether the emphasis on correct practice in Buddhism
can outweigh the importance of correct beliefs. The following discussion addresses this question in the context of Mahayana Buddhism, and
specifically by way of an examination of the Parable of the Burning
House from the Lotus sutra. This discussion, which concludes the book,
is a return to a discussion first broached in the Preface: the relation
between truth and teachings in Buddhism.
The Parable of the Burning House, from the Lotus sutra, describes an
application of Skillful Means. The parable begins with children inside
a burning house. Their father calls for them to come out but they will
not. The children are occupied playing games, and are unconcerned
by the calls for them to come out and are oblivious to the danger of
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encroaching flames. They do not listen to their father. He thinks to himself: The house is already in flames from this huge fire. If I and my
sons do not get out at once, we are certain to be burned. I must now
invent some expedient means that will make it possible for the children
to escape harm.1 The father, in an attempt to save his children from
burning to their early deaths, tells them that there are gifts waiting for
them outside the house. These are goat-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts.
The father declares: They [goat-carts, deer-carts, ox-carts] are outside
the gate now where you can play with them. So you must come out of
this burning house now.2 The children, in eagerness, rush out of the
burning house to get their promised presents. As noted in the passage
just quoted, the claim about the awaiting carts was an invention; it was
an expedient means. The promised animal carts were not waiting for
the children. The father, by promising these gifts, is said to have used
skillful means to bring his children to safety. When the children asked
for their carts the father, who was a very rich man, reflected on how to
respond: There is no end to my possessions. It would not be right if I
were to give my sons small carriages of inferior make.3 So he gave his
children something grander than the carts they were expecting: they
were given a carriage, bedecked with jewels and fineries, and pulled by
white oxen. The children do not get the carts they were promised, but
they pay no mind to this when they are given a much grander carriage.
In the parable, the father stands for the Buddha.4 The children are the
unenlightened. The burning house is the condition of suffering. The
goat, deer, and ox carts are vehicles that are supposed to lead to enlightenment (and it is worth noting that it is the promise of these vehicles,
and not the vehicles themselves, which leads the children from the burning house, the condition of suffering this will be elaborated later). The
vehicles are Buddhist teachings, and the difference in carts is analogous
1
The Lotus sutra, p. 57.
2
The Lotus sutra, p. 57.
3
The Lotus sutra, p. 58.
4 The Buddha tells his disciple Sariputra: I say this to you Sariputra, I am
like this rich man. The Lotus sutra, p. 69.

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to differences between teachings, suited to differences in spiritual needs


and development among followers. These teachings provide guidance in
overcoming suffering and the teaching given to the children at the end
represented by the bejewelled carriage pulled by white oxen represents
the Buddhas higher teaching. This is the way of the Bodhisattva, which
in the view of the Lotus sutra, is the true way to Buddhahood.
The Parable of the Burning House, as with the Raft Simile discussed
in the previous chapter, conveys that the Buddhas teachings are means
that deliver freedom from suffering. At the end of the previous chapter, the question was raised as to whether skillfully employed means can
include deceptive teachings if they help deliver freedom from suffering.
This does seem to be the case in the Parable of the Burning House.
That is, it does seem that the father lied to his children to get them out
of the house. The father may have told a necessary lie, or a benevolent
lie, but a lie nonetheless. It appears that deceptive teachings that lead to
benevolent ends can be justified, and that using teachings in this way is
actually skillful.
However, this is not the way this Parable is interpreted in the Lotus
sutra itself. It is asserted that the father did not lie to his children (and, by
analogy, the Buddha does not deceive in his teachings). The Buddha asks
Sariputra whether the father tells a falsehood to his children. Sariputras
unequivocal response is that he did not:
No, World-Honored One. This rich man simply made it possible
for his sons to escape the peril of fire and preserve their lives. He
did not commit a falsehood. Why do I say this? Because if they
were able to preserve their lives, then they had already obtained
a plaything of sorts. And how much more so when, through an
expedient means, they are rescued from that burning house! World
Honored One, even if the rich man had not given them the tiniest
carriage, he would still not be guilty of falsehood. Why? Because
this rich man had earlier made up his mind that he would employ
an expedient means to cause his sons to escape. Using a device of
this kind was no act of falsehood. How much less so, then, when

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the rich man knew that his wealth was limitless and he intended to
enrich and benefit his sons by giving each of them a large carriage.1
The Buddha agrees with Sariputras analysis: Very good, very good.
It is just as you have said. Sariputras response, though, is puzzling.
Sariputra states that the father the rich man in the passage above
did not lie because the children got something in return, namely
their lives, and because he knew, ahead of time, that his promise was
an expedient means to get his children out of the house. Furthermore,
according to Sariputra, it was even more so not a falsehood (if such a
thing is sensible) because the children were rewarded with something
better than the carts they were expecting. It is not denied that the father
invented an expedient means but it is denied that this is a lie. This invention is not a lie because the children were given better carriages than
those promised, and because the father intended for the promise of the
awaiting carts to be an expedient means for getting the children out of
the house. Nevertheless, the promise made by the father was not for
something better, or for their lives. It was for goat, deer and ox carts,
and these were promised to be waiting outside the house. Knowing that
these claims were benevolent expedients does not mean they werent
deceptive. Despite Sariputras defences, and the Buddhas agreement, the
father does appear to be guilty of falsehood.
If the father deceives then, by analogy, the Buddha and the Dharma,
at least in places, deceive. The deception may be benevolent and skillfully employed, but deception is still deception. Or so it seems. The
Buddha and Sariputra, as presented in the passage from the Lotus sutra
above, deny there is falsehood despite contrary appearances. It is worth
considering further why it is maintained that there is no deception in
this employment of Skillful Means. Considering this question is not just
to focus on interpreting the parable. It is taken as an opportunity for
reflecting more widely on the role of Buddhist teachings, and specifically on the role of teachings in leading to right practice and how this
1
The Lotus sutra, p. 58.

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bears on the role of communicating truths. All teachings are rafts, says
the Buddha, and as such are means towards ends. Thinking through
this question, and how it can be answered, will shed further light on the
Buddhas skillful use of teachings and the compassionate ends he aims to
attain.
In the parable, the flames are the condition of suffering. They are
Samsara. The flames represent craving and attachment to self, suffering
in the Buddhist conception. The flames do not represent the suffering of
pain, sorrow, sickness, death or unsatisfied desires generally (i.e., the sufferings of the first two groupings of the First Noble Truth). The presence
of these would trouble and motivate the children. They would run out
of the house to be free of pain and death. Instead, the flames are ignored.
The parable conveys that there is a kind of suffering that is very dangerous but that may, for all its danger and peril, go unrecognized. The
children are busy playing their games, undisturbed by the flames and
unbothered to leave. The Buddha describes this: They had no alarm,
no fright, and in the end no mind to leave the house. Moreover, they
did not understand what the fire was, what the house was, what danger
was. They merely raced about this way and that in play 1 By analogy,
humans live in a condition of pervasive self-attachment and craving and
do not even register that this is suffering. The parable conveys to the
reader or listener that there is more to suffering than the unenlightened
may ordinarily feel and think.
The father delivers his children from the burning house with the
promise of gifts. Specifically goat carts, deer carts and ox carts. To say
that the promise of carts leads the children out of the house is to say that
the promise made in the teachings leads the children out. What, though,
is this promise that delivers freedom from suffering? The Parable conveys that it is not the promise of freedom from suffering in the Buddhist
sense of the word, since the children are oblivious to the flames. That is,
it is not the promise of delivery from flames that leads the children out,
and accordingly it is not the promise of delivery from attachment to self
1
The Lotus sutra, p. 57.

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that leads an initiate along the Noble Eightfold Path. It is the promise
of freedom from suffering in another sense a personal self-attached
sense that is the motivator.
The promised animal carts that motivate the children to rush out of
the flaming house are individual vessels and represent personal enlightenment. They are described as inferior compared to the bejewelled
carriage pulled by white oxen that the father ultimately gives. This
carriage is described as a Great Vehicle, which is the meaning of
Mahayana. The inferior carts are lesser vehicles that carry only the
individual. They are by definition Hinayana. The children, who suffer
from attachment to self, rush out of the house for these inferior carts.
By analogy, it is the promise of personal enlightenment that motivates
the self-attached novice to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. This path
helps lead the follower out of the suffering of self-attachment just as it
leads the children out of the house. When the children get out of the
house they do not find the carts they were promised. Instead, they are
given a bejewelled carriage pulled by white oxen which they prefer. The
implication is that when the adept has sufficiently overcome attachment
to self so as to not need personal enlightenment as a motivation when
he is out of these flames then his preference for personal enlightenment can be replaced. He is ready to renounce personal enlightenment
in favour of pursuing freedom from suffering for all. In other words, he
is ready for the way of the Bodhisattva, the Great Vehicle of Mahayana
that is symbolized by the white-oxen led carriage.
Now let us return to our question: does the father, and by analogy the
Buddha, deceive? Again, on the surface the answer is clearly yes. The
inferior animal carts are not waiting as promised. Likewise, the claim
that one can achieve enlightenment by pursuing it for oneself i.e.,
Arhatship is false (according to the Mahayana view presented in the
Lotus sutra). It is not that the Noble Eightfold Path, which is supposed to
lead to individual enlightenment, is a wrong path. Rather, a change in
motivation is needed in following it. Specifically, a selfless motivation,
supplied by the renunciation of the Bodhisattva, is needed for the path
to work. With this in mind, and looking past the surface, the question

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of deceit can be answered with a no. A reason for thinking the Buddha
does not lie is because the promise of personal enlightenment is never
betrayed. It is still delivered; only the vehicle of delivery changes. In the
parable, the promise of personal freedom from suffering is represented
by the inferior animal carts (they are Hinayana: individual vehicles
of delivery). These vehicles, and the self-interested motivation they represent, will not lead all the way to enlightenment because they retain
attachment to self. A change in motivation is needed to complete the
journey, and this is represented by a change in vehicle: the white-oxen
led carriage represents the selfless path to enlightenment. It is the Great
Vehicle that delivers the promised freedom from suffering. The Buddha
promises personal delivery from suffering, but the motivation that successfully leads one to this cannot be for personal delivery from suffering.
At some point on the path the motivation needs to change to a selfless
motivation for the original promise to be fulfilled.
To be clear, the idea here is that the change in vehicles from the
lesser, inferior carts to the Great white-oxen led carriage does not
constitute a lie because it is exactly what is needed to ensure the Buddha
does not lie. That is, the key promise is delivery from suffering and for
this the vehicle of delivery needs to change from a personal motivation
to a selfless motivation. Personal enlightenment is never taken away from
the follower; it is just that it needs to be renounced to be obtained. This
way of answering the question of deceit involves thinking about just
what is the original promise of the Buddha: is it that personal delivery
from suffering can be attained, or is it more specifically that personal
delivery from suffering can be obtained by following a self-interested
motive? The Buddha asserts the former but not the latter. So there is no
deception in calling for a personal interest in freedom from suffering
to be renounced in favour of a selfless interest in freeing everyone from
suffering. Again, this means the father does not lie in switching vehicles
(although notice that we must look to the Buddha and the nature of his
promise to see why the father does not lie to his children). The Lotus
sutra conveys that the Arhat must sincerely renounce a personal interest
in enlightenment in order to secure it. Since personal enlightenment

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remains realizable, the Buddha does not lie on this count.


Then what about on another count? Renunciation may be necessary
on the path to enlightenment, but this is not made clear at the outset.
This lack of disclosure does seem deceptive and misleading. The wouldbe Arhat who commits to following the Noble Eightfold path does not
expect that, at some point, he will have to renounce his personal pursuit.
He does not expect, at the beginning of his journey, that he will have
to take on the much more onerous challenge of trying to help everyone
overcome suffering. Analogously, the father could have communicated,
up front, to the children that they would be presented a grand carriage
for all to ride instead of small, individual carts. But he does not. It seems
the would-be Arhat has a legitimate claim to being misled. Consider this
analogy. Suppose a climber is told that the top of the mountain is only
a little further on. Then after he climbs for a couple hours, he is told
that it is much further on. This is deceptive. It is perhaps benevolent,
done to boost the climbers drive, but it is still deceptive. Is the promise
made to the would-be Arhat, who upon getting well-along on the path
is told that he must now partake of the more challenging Bodhisattva
path to reach the objective of enlightenment, not like this? Arhatship
is presented as motivation but then, when the adept thinks he is getting
close, he is told he has much further to go. He may happily accept this
challenge, having reached a point on the path where he has overcome
much of his self-attachment; similar to how the children are happy to
receive the Great Vehicle once they get out of the burning house. But
still, there is cause to say the would-be Arhat is misled at the beginning
of the journey.
On the surface there is clearly deception. The goal line has been
moved. But again, considered further, it can be reasoned that there is no
deception. The point was already made that to fulfill on the promise of
personal enlightenment, the self-interested desire for personal enlightenment, while useful for a novitiate, needs at some point to be renounced.
This is represented by the father changing carts in the parable. A different point will be made here and this has to do with the kind of teaching
a novice, as opposed to an adept, is open to understanding. In the Lotus

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sutra, the Buddha explains why the father does not deceive with this
point in mind:
Sariputra, that rich man first used three types of carriages to entice
his sons, but later he gave them just the large carriage adorned with
jewels, the safest, most comfortable kind of all. Despite this, that
rich man was not guilty of falsehood. The Thus Come One does
the same, and he is without falsehood First he preaches the three
vehicles to attract and guide living beings, but later he employs
just the Great Vehicle [the Bodhisattva way] to save them. Why?
The Thus Come One possesses measureless wisdom, power,
freedom from fear, the storehouse of the Law. He is capable of giving to all living beings the Law of the Great Vehicle. But not all of
them are capable of receiving it.1
The Buddha conveys that at first the children the unenlightened are
not ready for the large carriage or Great Vehicle. The children, who
are attached to self, will not make their way out of the house without
thinking self-interestedly. This is how they see things. They are children, and so are we, the Buddha conveys, for thinking this way. The
large carriage will deliver individual freedom from suffering, but not
to those who are self-attached for they are not ready. When the children
leave the house that is, when they are out of the confounding flames
in which they did not even see their cravings and self-attachment as suffered final delivery from suffering and attachment becomes available
to them. The Bodhisattva Way is not presented to the beginner and a
reason this is not deceptive or misleading has to do with what the beginner is ready to understand. The idea is that being able to handle the full
truth which involves the renunciation of personal enlightenment in
favour of the Great Vehicle requires readying oneself. In the passage
just quoted, the Buddha says of the Dharma of the Great Vehicle, that
not all of them are capable of receiving it. The Buddha conveys that
1
The Lotus sutra, p. 62.

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he does not deceive because he gives as much truth as the follower can
deal with at his or her stage on the path.
Attachment to self is a pervasive condition that manifests not only
affectively but also cognitively, which is to say it is part of how we
understand and make sense of things. Freedom from attachment to self is
not only a difficult goal to motivate; it is a difficult goal to comprehend.
Something is worth pursuing, we tend to think, if it benefits ones future
self or other peoples future selves. This is how we assess goals. We presume permanence or sameness of self over time. In this frame of mind, to
work tirelessly towards an objective only to wholeheartedly renounce it
would be difficult, not only to accept, but to understand. To be told that
this is the way to a personal release from suffering would make sense,
but then this would interfere with the renunciation being sincere and
wholehearted; it would become an instrumental renunciation done for
the reason of a personal release from suffering. The teaching of renunciation is thus for those who are further along on the path and sufficiently
divested of self-attachment. This is needed to appreciate it. If a follower
is unable to fully appreciate a part of the Dharma, then arguably it is
not deceptive to not be given this Dharma. It would only be unskillful
or impractical. In this Mahayana view, the journey to enlightenment
is presented as having stages, and thus so is the Dharma. The Dharma,
according to the Buddha, is a series of rafts. To be given the final raft, or
all rafts together, is as impractical as carrying a raft on ones back after
it has served its use. In the passage above, the Buddha, in his wisdom,
conveys that partitioning the Dharma is not only the practical or skillful
way of proceeding, it is necessary. It is the only way the Dharma can be
taken in and comprehended by the unenlightened. The parable tells us
that the unenlightened are like children who must learn and grow in
stages. Since this is their nature, it should not be false to educate them
according to it.
Furthermore, notice again that the great oxen-led carriage is presented as a much better gift than the smaller animal carts. One meaning
to this contrast between carts has been noted: the smaller carts representing Arhatship will not lead all the way to enlightenment (or

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will lead only to a lesser enlightenment, depending upon the Mahayana


interpretation of the Arhat). These lesser carts thus have a lesser value.
There is also another meaning to the contrast, and perhaps more important: the oxen-led carriage is not simply a better carriage because it can
lead to a better destination; in the Parable, it is represented as a better
carriage in itself. Care is taken to describe how it is lavishly bejewelled,
with ornamentation and finery lacking in the smaller carriages. The
analogy thus conveys that the Bodhisattva path is a better way to live,
and not just better because of the superior enlightenment to which it
is alleged to lead. This is to say that the more toilsome path of having
to be concerned with the suffering of all, rather than just the suffering
of oneself, is to be viewed positively, as good in itself, rather than as
just a means to a better end. Indeed, it is supposed to be seen as a great
boon. The sacrifice required on this path is a challenge to be sure, but
this sacrifice is not to be avoided or complained about as if one were
under compunction to do a chore; on the contrary, it is to be welcomed.
Sariputra, in defending the father, says the children were given a much
better carriage than they expected. Likewise, the adept who is well
along in Buddhist practice before being told that ending the suffering
of others must come before ending his own, should not begrudge this.
The Parable is telling us that he should happily prefer this, just as the
children happily prefer the greater carriage to the lesser carriages (along
with all the demands that this symbolizes). The Parable is telling us that
the demands of self-sacrifice and compassionate service are to be viewed
positively and with gratitude, as if a gift of jewels were being given to
oneself. Our usual mindset tends to be quite opposite: when told to sacrifice our self-interests we demur and ask to what benefit it will lead.
We do not see it as good in itself, analogous to a fine carriage. When the
Buddha compares the unenlightened to children, he is conveying that
they do not see service to others in this way.
Consider that we can appreciate why the would-be Bodhisattva
chooses to renounce personal enlightenment if this is thought to
be the very way to secure enlightenment. However, if the would-be
Bodhisattva does not expect to gain enlightenment through renouncing

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it; if the renunciation is sincere and not a means to an end, then we


might wonder why he would renounce a goal for which he has worked
so hard. The Parable of the Burning House tells us why: the renunciation
of personal enlightenment, and the outright commitment to alleviating
the suffering of others that this involves, is good in itself. Compassion
may lead to a better enlightenment, but the Parable conveys that it is an
end in itself and to be desired as such.
So far, a reasonable case can be made that the fathers, and thus the
Buddhas, skillful use of means is not a deceptive use. But let us try
one more time. The father promises delivery from suffering. However,
the suffering the children are delivered from is not what they originally
considered to be suffered. This is represented by the childrens obliviousness to the flames which conveys they are oblivious to the dangers of
cravings and attachment to self. Because the father delivers the children
from something they did not recognize as being suffered, his promise
of delivery from suffering may seem deceptive. The analogue would
be promising delivery from pain, aging, sickness, death and unsatisfied
desires generally and then only delivering freedom from craving and
attachment to self. While freedom from self-attachment may make the
pain, aging, etc., less displeasing, it is still not to give freedom from pain,
aging, etc.
So let us consider whether this is a source of deception: the kind of
suffering from which freedom is promised. Three different groupings of
suffering are presented in the First Noble Truth, but only suffering in the
third sense is to be eliminated. One might say that the promise that suffering can be eliminated (asserted in the Third Noble Truth) should be
read to include all three groupings and thus the Buddha deceives when
he does not deliver all this. However, while the First Noble Truth does
include examples such as pain, sickness, aging, and death, the suffering
that is focussed upon in these and other experiences is explicitly summarized as involving attachment to the aggregates. This means that what is
suffered, in the Buddhist sense, when one experiences pain and sickness
is not the events themselves but the cravings that accompany these experiences; that is, the attachment to self in these experiences is suffered.

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Pain, aging, sickness and death are all plainly part of being human and
mortal. Buddhism does not try to eradicate them. This should also be
clear from the Buddhas life story. When Gautama first leaves his fathers
palace, it is not just the sight of the first three signs old age, sickness and
death that disturbs him. It is their inevitability that disturbs him. His
chariot driver successively tells him that he too will succumb to old age,
sickness and death and with each telling Gautama is further unnerved.
He realizes his palace life cannot shelter him from old age, sickness
and death no matter how much diversion it offers. This is why he is so
troubled by the signs, and so compelled to leave his luxuriant life (for it
offers no real remedy). He knows he will not cure old age, sickness and
death upon venturing out but he hopes to find a way to be undisturbed
by their inevitability. He turns to asceticism to deal with his desires, and
not to escape old age, sickness and death. The Buddhas life story, which
is an important part of the pedagogy of the Dharma, is by itself enough
to convey that the Buddha does not promise freedom from sickness, old
age, or death. For some, Buddhism may seem to promise these in a
heavenly abode perhaps but the life of the Buddha, including postenlightenment, does not show this (for he did get sick, age, feel sorrow
and pain, and die). Buddhism should not be thought to promise what
was not attained by the Buddha himself. In short, the Buddha does not
deceive his followers about the kind of suffering he promises freedom
from; or at least, if they are deceived about this, they bear responsibility
for deceiving themselves. This means that in the parable, in luring his
children out of the burning house by promising individual animal carts,
the father does not, by analogy, promise freedom from sickness, aging,
and death. His promise is for personal enlightenment, and as described
above, this promise remains in place through the change in vehicles.
Are these considerations enough to show that the father in the parable, and analogously the Buddha, do not deceive in using skillful means?
The reader is left to decide for him- or herself. What is more important,
for the purpose of this book, is to appreciate how the Dharma is used to
lead the Buddhist aspirant along a path towards ever greater selflessness.
This is its aim. And this is wherein the end of suffering is to be found.

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This has been the primary theme developed in this book. We see this
with each of the teachings discussed, including the lessons imparted in
the legend and life story of the Buddha. All Buddhist doctrines and principles are rafts to be used to lead to the end of self-attachment and thus
to the end of suffering. The Buddha finds a spiritually fulfilled life an
enlightened and awakened life in a selfless life. It is towards this hopeful end that the Buddhas Dharma serves as means. And so it is entirely
appropriate for the Buddha to try for this to be an expedient and skillful
means. Indeed, this is just what should be expected of a Compassionate
One.

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Glossary of Select Sanskrit,


Pali and Philosophical
Terms
Wh i le Sa nsk r it t r a nslit e r at ions of terms are generally used
in this book, Pali transliterations are given in addition to, and occasionally instead of, Sanskrit where this is commonplace or in line with the
source used. Diacritical marks and accents on transliterated words have
not been included in order to help the reader who is not familiar with
Buddhist or Indian terms, or with the use of these marks and accents and
the spellings they can affect.
Abhidharma: Literally the higher teachings of the Buddha. A collection of texts and literature that provide systematic treatments of the
Buddhas teachings. Abhdiharma Pitaka refers to the Abhidharma that
make up one of the three baskets of the Tripitaka.
Aggregates: The psychophysical constituents of the self. They include
bodily processes, sensations, perceptions, volitional and intentional
activity, and consciousness.
Anatman/Anatta: Sanskrit/Pali for No Self.
283

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Anitya/Anicca: Sanskrit/Pali for Impermanence.


Annihilationism: There is a self, permanent and independent of the
ever-changing aggregates, that comes to an end at death.
Arhat/Arahant: Sanskrit/Pali for one who, by following the teachings
of the Buddha, has achieved enlightenment as an individual goal.
Atman: The True Self of the Upanishads. Atman is not a personal self.
Atman is identified with Brahman.
Bhikkhus: Buddhist monks.
Bodhisattva/Bodhisatta: Sanskrit/Pali for an enlightened being. The
Bodhisattva pursues the end of suffering for all rather than just for
him- or herself.
Brahman: The Ultimate Reality of the Upanishads. Brahman is monistic (i.e., essentially one, without fundamental distinctions). Brahman
is identified with Atman, the True Self.
Buddha: One who is enlightened or awakened. That is, one who has
obtained freedom from suffering.
Causal Determinism: Every event is fully determined by its cause.
Cravings: Desires that seek to satisfy an ego-self. More specifically,
second or higher-order desires that seek to satisfy a first or lowerorder desire in order to satisfy a self.
Dharma/Dhamma: Sanskrit/Pali for the teachings and truths of the
Buddha. Dharma in the Indian tradition also has other related connotations such as duty, order, righteousness, or Natural Law.
Dharmas/Dhammas: Sanskrit/Pali for the impartite constituents of the
world as experienced.
Duhkha/Dukkha: Sanskrit/Pali for Suffering. Other connotations
include sorrowfulness and unsatisfactoriness.
Empiricism: School of philosophical thinking according to which
judgements pertaining to what is true or real must be justifiable by
experience.
Emptiness (Sunyata): Refers to the absence of independent or ultimate
reality or own-being (svabhava, see below). Alternatively, refers to
the conventional dependence of all things, concepts and truths.
Enlightenment: See Nirvana/Nibbana.

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Glossary of Select Sanskrit, Pali and Philosophical Terms

285

Eternalism: There is a self, permanent and independent of the everchanging aggregates, that continues on after death.
Guru: Teacher.
Hinayana: The lesser vehicle. A term used by Mahayana Buddhism
to refer to schools that promote the ideal of personal enlightenment
or the Arhat.
Karma: In Buddhism, karma refers to intentional actions and the
theory of karma stresses the law-like causal connections between
intentional actions and their effects.
Mahayana: The greater vehicle or vessel. Refers to the ideal that
enlightenment is to be pursued for all rather than just for oneself;
this ideal is the way of the Bodhisattva.
Moksa: Liberation from suffering and the cycle of samsara.
Monism: The idea that everything is essentially one, without fundamental distinctions. In the Upanishads, this oneness or unity is called
Brahman.
Nikaya: A collection within the Sutra/Sutta Pitaka.
Nirvana/Nibbana: Sanskrit/Pali for the extinguishing of suffering.
Treated as synonymous with Enlightenment or Awakening.
Non-Dualism: The experience or condition of being without subjectobject dualism (see below).
Numerical Identity: Being one and the same thing as. The notion of
personal identity over time involves numerical identity.
Parinirvana: Final Nirvana occurring at the end of a life and signifying
the end of the cycle of rebirth. May also be interpreted as superior in
quality to Nirvana.
Prajnaparamita: The Perfection of Wisdom. A perfect wisdom is
from beyond; it reflects the enlightened viewpoint. Refers to the
Perfection of Wisdom sutras such as the Heart sutra and Diamond sutra.
Qualitative Identity: Being the same in qualities or properties.
Rishi: Sage or seer.
Rita: The cosmic or universal order which serves to make the universe
intelligible.
Samsara: The condition of suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

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Skanhdhas/Khandhas: Sanskrit/Pali for the Aggregates.


Sramana/Samana: Sanskrit/ Pali for an ascetic.
Subject-Object Dualism: This is a dualism between our selves or
our subjective awareness on the one hand, and the objects of our
awareness on the other hand (these objects of awareness can be in the
external world or states of our minds).
Sutra/Sutta: Sanskrit/Pali for a discourse of the Buddha. Sutra/Sutta
Pitaka refers to the collection or basket of sutras/suttas that make up
one of the three baskets of texts in the Tripitaka.
Svabhava: Own-being. Or self-being, essence, or ultimate existent.
Dharmas are said to have svabhava in the Abhidharma literature.
Theravada: The doctrine of the elders. A non-Mahayana Buddhist
school.
Tripitaka/Tipitaka: Sanskrit/Pali for the three baskets of texts in the
Pali canon. These are the Sutra/Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka, and the
Abhidharma Pitaka.
Trishna: Cravings.
Universal Causation: Every event has a cause.
Upanishads: A collection of discourses that literally translates as
Sitting down near as in sitting at the feet of a teacher for instruction. Also known as Vedanta, or end of the Vedas, both because
they are concluding portions of the Vedas and represent the philosophical height of the Vedas.
Upaya Kaushalya: Skillful Means, or Skill in Means.
Vedas: Oldest and most sacred scriptures of Hinduism.
Vinaya: Texts that deal with monastic rules. Vinaya Pitaka refers to the
Vinaya that make up one of the three baskets of the Tripitaka.
Wants: Desires that are not cravings (i.e., that do not seek to satisfy an
ego-self ).
Yoga: Bodily, mental and spiritual techniques of discipline.
Yogi: A master in yoga techniques.

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Bibliography

Primary Sources

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Snellgrove, and Arthur Waley (eds. and trans.). New York: Harper
Torchbooks, 1954.
Dhammapada. Juan Mascaro (trans.). The Path of Perfection. London:
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Digha Nikaya. Maurice Walshe (trans.). The Long Discourses of the
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Early Buddhist Discourses. John. J. Holder (ed. and trans.). Indianapolis:
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Jataka. E.B. Cowell (trans.). Stories of the Buddhas Former Births. 6 vols.
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The Lotus Sutra. B. Watson (trans.). New York: Columbia UP, 1993.
Majjhima Nikaya. Bhikku Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.).
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Majjhima Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.
Milinda Panha. T.W. Rhys Davids (trans.). The Questions of King Milinda.
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Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Jay Garfield (trans. and commentary). Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
The Principal Upanishads. S. Radhakrishnan (trans.). New York: Harper
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The Short Prajnaparamita Texts. E. Conze (trans.). First Edition. London:
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Udana. F.L. Woodward (trans.). Verses of Uplift in The Minor Anthologies
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Vinaya Pitaka. I.B. Horner (trans.). The Book of Discipline. 6 vols.
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Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa. Bhikkhu Nanamoli (trans.). The Path of
Purification. Onalaska, WA: BPS Paryiyatti Editions, 1999.

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Bahm, Archie J. Philosophy of the Buddha. Fremont, CA: Jain, 1959.


Blackburn, Simon. Think. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
Chisholm, Roderick. On the Observability of the Self in Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 30, No. 1, Sept. 1969, pp. 7-21.
Collins, Steven. Selfless Persons: Imagery and thought in Theravada
Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP,
1967.

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Davidson, Donald. Essays on Actions and Events. Second Edition.


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Descartes, Ren. Meditations on First Philosophy. Third Edition. Donald
A. Cress (trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.
Ganeri, Jonardon. Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of Self and Practices of
Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.
Garfield, Jay. Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness:
Why did Nagarjuna Start with Causation? in Philosophy East and
West, 44 (2), 1994, pp. 219-50.
. Emptiness and Positionlessness: Do the Madhyamaka
Relinquish All Views? from Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and
Cross-Cultural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002, pp. 46-68.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford UP,
1998.
Gombrich, Richard F. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of
the Early Teachings. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997.
Gowans, Christopher W. Philosophy of the Buddha. London: Routledge,
2003.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and
Practices. First Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Hume, David. Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Kalupahana, David. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and
Discontinuities. Honalulu: U of Hawaii P, 1992.
Kim, Jaegwon. Philosophy of Mind. Third Edition. Boulder, CO:
Westview P, 2011.
Koller, John M. Asian Philosophies. Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle River,
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the Self: Comparisons and Evaluations in Philosophy East and West,
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McIntyre, Jane. Hume and the Problem of Personal Identity
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Nanamoli Bhikkhu. The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon.
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of Oxford (pp. 292-317). Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
Penelhum, Terence. Hume on Personal Identity in The Philosophical
Review, 64 (4), 1955, pp. 571-89.
Plato. Phaedo from Five Dialogues. Second Edition. G.M.A Grube
(trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002.
Radhakrishnan, S. Our Heritage. Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1984.
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Robinson, Wade L. Humes Ontological Commitments in The
Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 102, Hume Bicentenary Issue,
Jan. 1976, pp. 39-47.
Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Indianapolis:
Hackett, 2007.
Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1993.
Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism. Second Edition. Toronto:
Wadsworth, 2002.
Thomas, Edward J. The Life of Buddha as Legend and History. Third
Edition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.
Westerhoff, Jan. Nagarjunas Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction.
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Routledge, 1989.
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the Indian Tradition. London: Routledge, 2000.

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Index

Abhidharma, xiii-xiv, 198, 203-05, 218,


224-25, 233-34
canonical source for certain
Buddhist schools, 195
concern with the world of our
experience, 208
device for promoting mindfulness
and understanding, 209
distinction between conventional
and ultimate truth (or reality),
207
extension of the Buddhas empirical
analysis, 209
Abhidharma canon, 146, 195, 222
Abhidharma Pitaka, 195-96, 219
Abhidharma texts, 195, 197
word of the Buddha, 196
action exists, but no doer, 90, 139
affective attachment (not belief), 122-23
affective dimension to desire, 71
aggregate of bodily processes, 134
aggregate of conscious activity, 134
aggregate of sensations and perceptions,
134

aggregate of volition and intentional


activity, 55, 77, 134, 150, 163, 171
aggregates, 43, 51-54, 100, 110, 150,
207. See also Argument from the
Aggregates
are caused, 167
composed of dharmas, 223
empty of own-being, 225, 231
ever-changing, 183
the five aggregates of attachment,
50-56, 58, 66, 85, 110
impermanence of the, 133-34
observed to arise and pass, 188, 230,
232
Agni (god of fire), 7
Alagaddupama sutra, xii
Ananda (disciple), 148
Anatman, 109, 114, 178
Anattalakkhana Sutta, 124
Annihilationism, 143-44, 177, 193
Argument from Lack of Control, 113,
123, 160
argument against a self that is
independent, 125

291

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292

Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach

asserts there is no controlling self,


167
effective against ascetics and other
believers in Atman, 126
highlights the limited degree of
control we have, 127-28
leads us away from attachment to
self, 129
Argument from the Aggregates, 54, 109,
119-21, 184
challenge from Atman or True Self
concept, 111-13
for the doctrine of No Self, 110-11,
163, 224
dualistic empiricist methodology,
113
empiricist methodology, 110-11, 115,
122, 126, 224
means for overcoming cravings and
attachments to self, 122
notion of self as composite entity,
116
use against Atman seems questionbegging, 126
Arhat, 250-51
individual enlightenment, 221, 264
Parinirvana and, 247
stage on the way to becoming
enlightened, 255, 264, 267
Arhatship, 222, 274, 278
goal of personal enlightenment, 265
incentive for undertaking Buddhist
practice, 256-57
inferior but nonetheless real
enlightenment, 256
Skillful Means or raft that leads only
so far, 265
stage on path of becoming enlightened, 255, 264, 267
will not lead all the way to enlightenment, 278
arising and passing, 131-37, 145, 210
aggregates characterized by, 188, 211,
230, 232
dharmas, 202
ascetic monk (4th sign), 20

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asceticism, 26, 35, 48


attachment to self remained, 31, 99
cannot overcome desire fully, 30, 32
emphasis on the body, 30, 33, 98
not sufficient for achieving cessation
of suffering, 26-27
self-disciplining is thought to lead
to a realisation of Atman, 123
asceticism (symbolically read)
preparation for undertaking Middle
Way, 36
Ashoka (warrior king), xii
Astasahasrika sutra, 220
Atman or True Self, 5-6, 11-14, 109, 11112, 123, 178, 237-38, 242
can exert full control, 126
identity with Ultimate Reality
(Brahman), 12, 113, 124
monistic, 113
non-dualistic experience, 113
realisation of, 89
attachment to permanence, 170
attachment to self, 48, 56, 65, 82, 89, 122,
126, 180, 191, 254
beginners on path to
enlightenment, 265
craving and, 31-32, 48, 66-68, 87,
122, 153-54, 193
Dependent Origination helps to
overcome, 168
dualistic, 237
involved with cravings, 67, 71
may, but need not, involve
selfishness, 70
may become entrenched through
the use of language, 102
overcoming, 6, 14, 61, 64, 86, 129,
167
pervasiveness, 59
roots of suffering, 60, 100
source of suffering, 17, 50, 67, 81,
143, 194
survival advantages, 61
Three Root Evils and, 88
unjustified, 135
Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo, 4

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Index
Avalokiteshvara, 224-25, 227
Bahm, Archie J., 73-79
Bahms dialectical analysis of desires
criticism of, 77-80
beginners on path to enlightenment
attached to self, 265
can undertake basic doctrines of
Impermanence and No Self, 231
beginning causes, 158, 160, 162
important for understanding
causality in Dependent
Origination, 159
need not be uncaused beginnings,
163
Berkeley, George, 4, 205-06
billiard ball causation, 154-55
birth, 43
Bodhi Tree or Tree of Enlightenment, 26
Bodhisattva, 223, 236, 274
able to achieve Parinirvana, 247
attains Buddahood through
renouncing Buddahood, 253-57
commitment to others, 248, 252
compassion, 223-24, 246, 249-50,
265
held in higher esteem than the
Arhat, 221
perfect wisdom, 223
regarded as superior being, 248
see the world as empty, 222, 229
self-sacrifices, 249-50
superior enlightenment, 256
vow requires that the adept not
place his own release before that
of others, 250
Bodhisattva Way, 277
body is the self (view), 124-25
Brahman, 5, 9-12, 14, 113, 123-26, 237-38
affirmation of independent reality,
238
descriptions are positive and assert a
metaphysics, 242
indescribability of, 10
monistic principle, 10
realisation of, 89
Brahmanical thought, 174

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293
Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, 12, 112
British Empiricism, 205
Buddha, 42. See also Buddhas example;
Gautama Buddha
action exists, but no doer, 90, 139
advocating modesty and
moderation, 30
affirms the impermanence of the
aggregates, 140
brings to light how little control we
have, 127
compassion (See compassion of the
Buddha)
Dependent Origination is a subtle
and difficult doctrine, 151, 155,
159
disagreement with traditional
approach, 114
emphasis on practice over belief,
267-68
empiricist method, 50, 52, 204,
207-08
empiricist understanding of
impermanence, 131
enlightenment (initial) was as
Bodhisattva, not Arhat, 252
enlightenment preceded his years of
compassionate service towards
others, 250-51
existence of self is denied, 50, 90-91,
110, 131, 135, 208
First Preaching, 39, 42, 110, 220
inspired utterance on Nirvana,
241-42
no True Self, 114, 124
portrayed as deity, 44
practical corrective with Argument
from Lack of Control, 129
psychological insight, 263
realization No Self had practical
consequences, 59
rejection of a personal rebirth,
176-77
Skillful Means (See Buddhas Skillful
Means)
stories that portray him as a deity,
22

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Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach

teachings (See Buddhas teachings)


thought to have supra-human status,
248
Buddha and David Hume, 57-58
Buddhaghosa, 84-86
Path of Purification, 197
Buddhas example
commitment to helping others
overcome suffering, 136, 180,
220-21
enlightenment need not be
sacrificed in favour of helping
others, 251
exemplar of compassion (See
compassion of the Buddha)
human example for other humans
to emulate, 44
instructive for a correct
understanding of suffering, 87
life is upheld as example, 220, 250
Buddhas Middle Way. See Middle Way
Buddhas Skillful Means, 269-82. See also
deceptive teachings, Skillful Means
Buddhas teachings, 110, 226, 230
are means that deliver freedom from
suffering, 271
higher teaching, 271
likens his teachings to rafts, xii-xiii
Buddhism
adopts some aspects of traditional
Uphanishadic or Brahmanical
thought, 174
centred around Gautama Buddha,
15
correct practice emphasized in,
267-68
does not present a moral theory in
its basic documents, 180
end of suffering does not depend
on a god or gods, 85
orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy,
267
pessimism (apparent), 41
a practice for individuals to
eliminate their suffering, 180

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rejects aspects of traditional


Uphanishadic or Brahmanical
thought, 174
rejects notion of True Self or
Atman, 5-6
techniques for mental discipline, 61
theory of human suffering and the
means of alleviation (early and
basic doctrines), 180
unorthodox school within the
Indian philosophical tradition,
1, 5-6
Buddhist doctrines and principles, 282
Buddhist practice without objective or
interest, 257
Buddhist teachings, 220
analysis of the human being
into five psycho-physical
constituents, 206
practical guides to be left aside
when no longer useful, 38, 263,
282
pragmatic approach to, 264
primary goal is to relieve suffering,
268
Buddhist view of self
believe numerical identity useful in
speaking but is ungrounded, 182
causal continuity in thinking of self
over time, 181, 194
no self that exists separately from
the aggregates, 139
supposed to affect ones view of
death, 144
bundle or no owner theory of self,
58, 119
Burma, 221
Cambodia, 221
Carvaka (materialist school), 5
causal connections, 171-72, 188
causal continuity, 168, 178, 181-84, 189,
193
allows judgements of moral
responsibility without belief in
sameness of self, 185-86

2013-11-20 11:56 AM

Index
contrast with numerical identity,
182
different from permanence or
identity over time, 145
causal determinism, 151-53, 155, 161,
163-64
causal reasoning, 152
causal understanding of suffering, 149
displayed in the Wheel of
Becoming, 88
causality in doctrine of Dependent
Origination
causal interconnection, 147
must admit beginning but not
uncaused causes, 162
causality in Noble Truths
admits beginning but not uncaused
causes, 162
causes can be unpredictable (in Buddhist
view), 154
Chan Buddhism, 229, 257
change, 131-32, 135, 137-38
chariot analogy, 117, 123, 186-87, 189, 225
self is properly viewed as composite,
118-20, 188
similar to David Humes Bundle
Theory of self, 119
China, 221
Chisolm, Roderick, 206
cogito ergo sum, 89
Collins, Steven, 121, 123-24, 178
compassion, 47, 69, 104, 199, 204, 222, 245
antidote to greed and grasping, 260
counteracts Three Root Evils, 88
emotive or affective component,
260
empathy, 246
exercised for its own sake, 261
genuine compassion, 259-62
helps lead to the realisation of No
Self, 243
helps overcome attachment to self,
251, 260, 266
key mark of Mahayana Buddhism,
243-45
mental dharma, 199, 201

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295
compassion/emptiness relations, 243
compassion and suffering, 258-59
compassion is an end in itself and to be
desired, 279-80
compassion of the Buddha, 32, 221, 25152, 259, 262, 265
composite self, 115, 118-19, 181, 188, 206
analogy of chariot and, 186
involves line of causal continuity
over time, 168-70, 189
concept of self, utility of, 89, 92
concern for self. See selfishness
conditioned arising. See Dependent
Origination
Connected Discourses on Causation, 164
consciousness, aggregate of, 56
continuity after death. See eternalism
conventional truth vs. ultimate truth, 185,
189, 206-08, 239
covetous thoughts, 173
craving, volition, and aversion or hatred,
149
craving and permanence, 65-67
cravings, 6, 31, 64, 80-82. See also desire
attitude of desirousness or
covetousness, 73
can be eliminated, 66
can be transformed into wants or
uprooted, 72
cause of suffering, 60, 65, 68, 82 (See
also suffering)
formal observations, 73-77
qualitative observations, 70-72
second-order desire seeking
satisfaction of first-order desire,
76
cravings and wants, 67-69
differ in attitude, 73
difference is one of kind, 67-70, 76
as different kinds of desires, 67-69
qualitative difference (difficulty
appreciating), 71

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Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach

deceptive teachings, 269-72


not a lie if promise of personal
enlightenment is not betrayed,
275-76
not deceptive to offer teaching the
beginner can understand, 274,
277
on surface yes, but actually no, 276
teachings suited to differences
in needs and development of
followers, 271, 276
deceptive teachings that lead to
benevolent ends (Skillful Means)
can be justified, 271
Dependent Origination, xiii, 88, 147-70,
195, 234, 246
asserts causal connections between
aggregates, 150, 169, 232
based on careful observation of the
aggregates, 162
Buddha stated that it was subtle and
profound, 235
causal continuity over time, 190
doctrine about primarily mental
aggregates, 156, 161, 167
empirical method, 230
emptiness and, 232-35
enlightened point of view on, 235
entails universal causation, 150
integral to Buddhas enlightenment,
148
objective is to overcome suffering,
153, 155, 209
overcoming craving and attachment
to self, 153, 168
physical causation does not work
for, 153-54
predictable causation required, 155
requires beginning causes that are
not uncaused causes, 159, 162
Descartes, Ren, 4, 58, 89-91
desire, 1, 14, 22-23. See also cravings
asceticism and, 26
nth order desires, 74-75
orders of, 81
removing, 3

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 296

second-order desire, 73-75


some desires for permanent states
need not cause suffering in the
Buddhist sense, 65-66
that cannot be permanently
satisfied, 2-3, 46
desire and suffering connection, 3, 22,
30-31, 65-66
Dhammapada, 86
Dharma, xii-xiii, 100, 148, 177, 197, 263
based on careful observation of the
human condition, 202
deceives in places (See deceptive
teachings)
directed at overcoming the
experience of suffering, 209
doctrines and teachings of the
Buddha, 195, 198 (See also
Buddhas teachings)
dharmas, xiii, 146
allow for understanding the sources
of suffering, 201
arise and pass, 211, 234
building blocks of reality, 197
constituents of the aggregates, 202
constituents of the reality described
by the Dharma, 198
constitute the world of human
experience, 200-01, 207, 209
evanescent, 202
events, not objects, 203
have own-being, 203-04, 206, 216,
218, 224-25
held to be empty, 218, 231
irreducible simples, 199, 202-03,
205, 217
observation of, 210, 213
physical, 199, 201, 207
smallest units of what we
experience, 205
subject to the doctrine of
Impermanence, 203, 211
transient events, 202, 212
as ultimate reality, 203-09
dharmas and atoms, 198-203
dharmas and mindfulness, 209-11

2013-11-20 11:56 AM

Index
Diamond sutra, 220, 223
discipline, 69
important element of every step of
Noble Eightfold Path, 101, 105
as means towards overcoming
suffering, 3, 24
mental discipline, 33
needed to overcome attachment to
self, 267
self-discipline, 14, 22, 123
discipline, denial and self-mastery, 24
disciplining measures of the Noble
Eightfold Path, 255
Discourse on the Characteristic of Notself, 124
distinctions are empty, 235
doctrine of Dependent Origin. See
Dependent Origination
doctrine of Impermanence. See
Impermanence
doctrine of No Self. See No Self
dualism, 3-6, 96
duhkha, 40-41
duration of a dharma, 203, 211-18
East Asia, 221
East Asian Buddhist tradition, 220
ego-self, 6, 11, 14, 114
8000 Line sutra, 223
Eightfold Path, 43
emptiness, xiv, 6, 113, 222-31, 245-46. See
also Perfection of Wisdom sutras
Dependent Origination and, 232-35
differentiated from nothingness,
228, 234
of distinctions, 239, 241
everything is always viewed as
interdependent and not as a
thing unto itself, 232, 234
extends to truths and concepts, 226
from beyond, 240
key mark of Mahayana Buddhism,
243
monism and, 237
negatively described, 242

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 297

297
reduced potential for craving and
attachment, 238, 242
repudiation of independent
existence, 236-39
without suffering in Buddhist sense,
237
emptiness and enlightenment, 228, 235,
240-44
emptiness and non-duality, 235-40
emptiness is itself empty, 228-29
enlightened perspective of a viewpoint
from beyond, 231
enlightenment, xiii, 16-17, 25, 28, 67. See
also Nirvana
can be reached as a goal pursued for
oneself, 220-21
perfect wisdom of, 224
perfect wisdom of one who has
gone beyond, 245
progression involving different
stages, 264
superior enlightenment, 256
enlightenment, degrees of in Mahayana
Buddhism, 221
enlightenment and freedom from
suffering for all, 243
enlightenment must be pursued through
ones own path, 37-38
enlightenment similar to the Buddhas
own, 221
Eternalism, 143-44, 177, 247
expedient means, 270. See also Skillful
Means
First Noble Truth, 42-43, 82-83, 100, 114
does not overtly ascribe a subject,
91
examples that cannot be eliminated,
44
first grouping of examples (such
as sickness, old age, and death),
61, 178
First Understanding, 43-44, 47, 49
there is suffering, 40-41 (See also
suffering)
third grouping of, 66, 172

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Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach

first-order desire, 73, 75


biologically ingrained, 76
satisfied for Gautama during palace
life, 74
First Turning of the Wheel of the
Dharma, 42
First Understanding (in First Noble
Truth), 49
corresponds with Gautamas palace
life, 47
definition by reference to examples,
43-44
the five aggregates of attachment, 66, 85,
110
argument for No Self, 50
bodily processes, 51-54
consciousness, 56
mental formations, 55
perceptions, 55, 58
sensations, 54-55
folk psychological analyses, 157
Four Noble Truths, xiii, 39-40, 42, 84,
100, 110, 195, 221
causality in, 147-49
diagnosis of suffering and a
prescription for its eradication,
220
the four signs, 19-24
Fourth Noble Truth
eliminate cause of suffering by
following the Noble Eightfold
Path, 40
focus on alleviating suffering of
others helps overcome selfattachment, 266
suffering-inducing causes
eliminated by following the
Middle Way, 153
free agent, 126
free will, 163
Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way
(Nagarjuna), 229
Garfield, Jay, 228, 239
Gautama Buddha. See also Buddha

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 298

as ascetic, 26-27, 35, 66, 74-75, 98


(See also asceticism)
Buddha touched the earth, 28
chose to find his own path, 37
could not satisfy second-order
desire to be without first-order
desire, 75
early life, 16-18
enlightenment, 16-17, 28
as exemplar of the path to
enlightenment, 33
fulfilled his duties as a male before
leaving to pursue a spiritual life,
23-24
human example for other humans
to emulate, 44
left ascetic disciples and ate solid
food, 26
left behind luxurious life to lead an
ascetic life, 18-21, 23, 74
legend and life story of, xiii
lessons learned from, 36
on old age, 22-23
one buddha among many, 15
palace (luxurious) life, 21-22, 45
quest for liberation from suffering,
24
recognizes mental discipline needed
to overcome cravings and
attachment to self, 33
renunciation of early teachers and
asceticism, 25-28
shows inadequacy of traditional
approach, 31
teachers, 25-26, 97, 243
generosity, 88
genuine compassion, 259-62
Gethin, Rupert, 94, 154-56, 196, 209,
211n1, 216-17, 225, 230, 255-56
comparison of dharmas to atoms,
198-203
going forth, 20, 23
grammatical subject
not to be taken as a separately
existing subject, 91, 139, 142
greed, 179, 199, 201, 260

2013-11-20 11:56 AM

Index
gurus or yogis, 25
Harvey, Peter, 97-98, 267
hateful, hurtful or greedy acts, 179
hateful thoughts, 173
Hatha Yoga, 14
hatred, jealousy and greed, 140, 149, 260
Heart sutra, 220, 223, 225
on emptiness, 227
portrays the Bodhisattva
Avalokiteshvara (or Avalokita),
224
henotheism, 8
Heraclitus, 188-89
higher Dharma, 219
higher teachings for the more spiritually
advanced, 265
Hinayana, 274-75
Hume, David, 57-59, 90, 119, 131, 141-42,
161n1
admits that the collection of
aggregates is one collection, 189
bundle or no owner theory of
self, 58, 119
empiricist method, 206
humility, 229
identity, 183. See also self
personal identity over time, 140-43,
173, 186
ignorance, 88, 213
enforced, 21
willful, 34, 36
Impermanence, xiii, 59, 65, 130-37, 188,
193, 195, 217-18, 246
aggregates arise and pass, 135, 147
applies to the aggregates, 52, 132
asserts that there is no permanent
self, 181
dharmas subject to, 211
empirical method, 230
focused on the mind and its
contents, 136
helps to staunch cravings for
permanence, 146

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 299

299
impermanence of the aggregates,
136
implies the doctrine of No Self, 130
importance to Buddhist conception
of suffering, 130
rejection of personal rebirth accords
with, 177
of use in overcoming suffering, 146,
209
independence, 232
Indian philosophical tradition
causal connections between past,
present and future actions, 171
eradicating suffering, 5
subject-object dualism in, 3, 5
truths of universe and self, 13
individual freedom from suffering,
221-22, 274. See also personal
enlightenment
Indra (god of thunder), 7
inspired utterance, 98
in description of Nirvana, 94-96
intentional and volitional activity, 55, 88,
134, 136, 150, 163
intentional or willed actions, 159, 171,
173, 180
intentional states, 56, 60, 74
intentions, 57, 59, 111, 165, 243
interdependent arising. See Dependent
Origination
introspection, 60, 71-72, 157
Jain monks, 268
Jainism, 85
Japan, 221
judgements of sameness of self. See also
self
conventionally but not ultimately
true, 185
must rely only on causal
continuance, 184
not suffering-inducing if without
attachment, 185
usefulness of, 184
justice, 173, 175, 180

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Kalama, Alara, 25-26, 97-98, 243


karma, xiii, 172
grouped with the aggregate of
volitional or intentional activity,
171
important for maintaining a moral
order, 173-75
law-like connections between
intentional actions and reactions,
180
not intrinsically bound up with
justice, 173, 175, 180
prominent in Vedic and
Brahmanical traditions, 174
karma and rebirth, 175-76
karma (Buddhas meaning)
refers to willed or intentional
action, 171
karmic causal connections
admit universal causation but not
causal determination, 172
held to extend over successive lives,
176
khandhas. See aggregates; the five
aggregates of attachment
King Milinda example, 117, 186-87, 225
Korea, 221
Laos, 221
Lotus sutra, xiv, 36, 220, 256, 264, 267, 269,
272, 276-77
true way to Buddhahood expressed
in, 271, 275
lute analogy, 116-17, 119-20
luxuriant life tries to satisfy desire, 31, 34
luxury and asceticism
concern with the body, 30
Madhyamaka school, 228
Mahatanhasankhaya Sutra, 176
Mahayana Buddhism, xiii-xiv, 6, 180, 231,
256, 261, 274. See also Bodhisattva
accepts Noble Truths and basic
doctrines, 246

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 300

Buddhas life is upheld as example


of selflessness and compassion,
220, 250
close relationship between laity and
monks, 222
compassion key mark of, 220, 222,
243-45
degrees of enlightenment in, 221,
278
emphasis on wisdom, 222, 245
emptiness (See Mahayana view of
emptiness)
enlightenment to be pursued for all,
83, 180, 221, 266
journey to enlightenment has stages,
278
lay people may achieve
enlightenment, 221
literature of, 218-20
Mahayana philosophy, 196
Mahayana view of emptiness, 228-29,
234-35, 238, 243-44
Maya (Gautamas mother), 17
meditation, 25-26, 28, 52, 59, 80, 97-99,
106-07, 131, 213
mental causation, 150
mental causation with universal
causation, 161-64
admits beginning causes, 162
does not admit uncaused causes, 162
mental causation without universal
causation, 156-60
allows for the self to be the
uncaused cause, 161
mental dharmas, 199-201, 207
mental discipline, 33, 99
Mental Discipline or Meditation, 99
mental events, 153-54, 158
mental formationsintentional and
volitional activity, 55
mental walls, 34-35
metaphysical idealism, 205-06
metaphysics, 238, 242
methods of mindfulness and meditation,
80
Middle Way, 21, 29, 76, 99, 114, 144, 180

2013-11-20 11:56 AM

Index
Bahms view, 75
cognizant of kinds of desire that
lead to suffering, 31
concern with overcoming
attachment to self and craving,
32, 37
elimination of suffering, 148, 153
is an expedient to enlightenment
(traditional reading), 37
movement away from Indian
approaches of asceticism, 33
not all desires are problematic, 31-32
rejects points held in common by
both extremes, 33
rejects traditional view of source of
suffering, 32
simple interpretation of moderation
and modesty, 37
symbolic reading of, 33-36
traditional reading, 33, 37
mind perceptions, 55
mind sensations, 54-55
mindful, inward awareness of meditation,
59
mindful awareness of experiences, 211
mindful exercise of Dependent
Origination, 210
mindfulness, 80, 122, 168, 209-10. See also
Right Mindfulness
observation of dharmas, 213
mindfulness of dharmas, 209-11
Mishra, Pankaj, 25-26
moderation, 30, 37
monastic rules, 219
monism, 6, 9-10, 13, 124, 238
monism of Brahman, 12
monism of the Upanishads, 113
monistic experience of reality in which
suffering is overcome, 114
monkeys analogy, 211, 234
monotheism, 7-9
Moral Conduct, 99, 102
moral order, 173-74
moral responsibility, 185-86
moral theory, 180

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 301

301
Mulamadhyamakakarika. See Fundamental
Verses on the Middle Way (Nagarjuna)
mystical experiences, 240
Nagarjuna, 228
Fundamental Verses on the Middle
Way, 229
Nagasena (monk), 184-89
in chariot analogy, 117-18, 225
Nepal, 221
Newtonian mechanics, 154
Nidanasamyutta (Connected Discourses
on Causation), 164
Nirvana, xiii, 5, 42, 44-45, 67, 99, 113,
229, 241, 251. See also enlightenment;
Parinirvana
beyond linguistic description and
conception, 95
craving Nirvana is an obstacle to its
realization, 93
different levels of, 248
extinguishing of craving and
attachment to permanence or
sameness of self, 193
how it is not to be conceived, 98
involves experiencing this world as
empty, 242
negative description, 93-94, 241-42
not a transcendent place or realm,
86, 89
overcoming attachment to the
illusory self, 89
realisation that there is no self in
any substantive sense, 89
realising must involve a release from
dualistic thinking, 96
release from Samsara, 86-88
Nirvana without remainder, 247
No Self, xii-xiii, 58-59, 110, 115, 121, 142,
146-47, 187, 195, 246-47
allows for composite self, 168
asserts that there is no permanent
self, 126, 128, 177, 181, 230
on causal continuity over time, 190
chariot analogy and, 186

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derived primarily from Argument


from the Aggregates, 109
empirical method, 230
favoured over True Self, 114-15
is an ultimate truth, 185
practical objective of overcoming
suffering, 113, 122, 209, 261
rejection of personal rebirth accords
with, 177
religious identification for
those who are not adepts in
Buddhism, 178
strategies for overcoming
attachment to self, 121
Noble Eightfold Path, xiii, 70, 84, 88,
99-106, 120, 123, 148, 153, 172, 221,
257, 259, 261, 267
Bahms interpretation is at odds
with, 78-79
commitment to helping others not
required, 220
directed toward overcoming
suffering, 180, 220
discipline involved, 100-01, 105, 108
includes steps pertaining to moral
conduct, 180
objective involves overcoming
attachment to self, 100
path leading to individual
enlightenment, 265
path to Nirvana, 99
promise of freedom from suffering
leads an initiate onto, 274
Noble Truths, 164, 172, 209, 220
non-dualism, 5-6, 98, 235, 240-41
in realisation of Nirvana, 242
numerical identity, 140-41, 144, 182, 191
attachment resulting from, 192
simpler way of speaking, 192
numerical identity over time, 190
numerically identical I, 142
numerically identical self over time, 185,
189

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 302

objective reality, 5
observation of the aggregates and their
causes, 167, 230
does not support causal
determinism, 163
occurrences, dharmas as, 202
one who has gone forth, 20, 22
own-being, 203-04, 206, 216, 218, 224-25,
231
Pali canon, 195, 221
The Parable of the Burning House, xiv,
269-82
compassion is an end in itself and to
be desired, 279-80
conveys that the Bodhisattva path is
a better way to live, 279
describes an application of Skillful
Means, 269, 278
more to suffering than the
unenlightened may think, 273
suffering that is dangerous but
unrecognized, 273
unenlightened are like children
must learn in stages, 278
Parfit, Derek, 141
Parinirvana, 248, 251
final Nirvana of an enlightened
being, 246-47
regarded as the preserve of the
Bodhisattva, not the Arhat, 248
Path of Purification (Buddhaghosa), 197
perceptions, 55, 200
perfect wisdom, 222-24, 228, 240
perfect wisdom of one who has gone
beyond, 245
perfection of wisdom and emptiness,
223-31
Perfection of Wisdom sutras, 218, 245
all is empty, 223
emptiness is itself empty, 238
on original understanding of
Dependent Origination, 234
realisation of emptiness relies on
observational method, 230

2013-11-20 11:56 AM

Index
restatement of the original teaching
of the Buddha, 226, 230
self is empty (and the aggregates
and the dharmas), 225
personal enlightenment. See also
individual freedom from suffering
incentive for following Noble
Eightfold Path, 256
personal identity over time. See under
identity
pervasive suffering, 40-44, 46, 48-49, 70,
82
physical body and its physical processes,
51-55
physical causation, 150
admits causal determinism, 151-52
admits universal causation, 151
inadequate for understanding
causation in Dependent
Origination, 153-54, 156, 161
physical dharmas, 199, 201, 207
plant on desk analogy, 170, 191-92, 194
polytheism, 7-9, 85
Prajapati, 8
prajna. See wisdom
Prajnaparamita, 223
predictable causation, 155, 164
pseudo-wisdom, 26
psychological identification with being a
permanent being
needs to be faced and dealt with,
144
qualitative identity, 140-41
raft simile, xii, 263-64, 271, 278, 282
all teachings are rafts (means
towards ends), 273
Ramaputra, Uddaka, 25-26, 98, 243
reality vs. appearance, 207
rebirth, xiii, 173, 175, 177, 247
based on continuity of causal chains
(Buddhism), 194
laypersons understanding of, 178-79
or transmigration of self from one
life to another, 176

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 303

303
prominent concept in Vedic and
Brahmanical traditions, 174
same or different person (question),
178, 181-82, 192
renouncing personal enlightenment in
favour of the path of the Bodhisattva,
253, 255, 265-67, 276, 278
Right Action, 99, 102-03, 261
Right Action and Right Livelihood, 78
Right Concentration, 99
cultivating focused awareness, 105
important for meditation, 106
involves being effectively mindful,
107
pairs up with Right Mindfulness
and Right Effort, 105-06
Right Effort, 99
discipline required, 103-04
in the grouping of mental discipline,
104
overlaps with Right Intention, 103
Right Intention, 99, 103
in category of Wisdom, 102
moral aspect, 101
related to category of Moral
Conduct, 102
requires self-discipline and mastery,
102
Right Livelihood, 78, 99, 261
making a living and how we should
live in general, 103
requires Right Intention, Right
Speech, and Right Action, 103
Right Mindfulness, 99, 101
being aware of when a sense of self
intrudes, 104
being continually aware of thoughts,
motives and actions, 104
helps in overcoming attachment to
self, 108
involves Right Concentration, 105
maintaining a mindful remove from
experience of happiness, 108
moves attention away from desire,
105

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never getting fully embroiled in a


mental state, 106-07
role to play in cultivating moral
conduct in the Noble Eightfold
Path, 105
Right Speech, 99, 102
connects closely to Right
Intentions, 103
discipline in public and private
utterances, 103
not to be hurtful to others or
oneself, 102
Right View, 99, 102, 187
connects to Right Mindfulness, 101
discipline required, 101
intellectual attainment, 101
involves not being greedy for right
views, 101
understanding the Buddhas
teachings, 100
Rita (universal order), 7-8
rupa, 51
rupa skandha, 52
sages or rishis, 9-10, 13
Sakyamuni Buddha. See Gautama
Samsara, 149, 223, 229, 247
involves craving and attachment to
self, 87
opposite to Nirvana, 86
release from, 88
Sariputra, 148, 224-25, 271-72, 277, 279
Sarvastivada school, 146, 195, 197, 216-17,
222
Sati (monk), 176-77
Sautrantika school, 146, 195, 197, 216, 218,
222
second grouping, 61
Second Noble Truth, 114
asserts a universal causal claim, 165
cravings are the cause of suffering,
64
suffering has causes, 40-41, 153, 164
second-order desire, 73-75
seeking the satisfaction of first-order
desire, 74

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 304

second understanding in First Noble


Truth, 45-48
corresponds to second stage of
Buddhas life, 48
finding the root cause of suffering
in desire, 48
self
attachment to (See attachment to
self)
Buddhist view of, 139, 144, 181-82,
194
bundle or no owner theory of,
58, 119
composite (See composite self)
continuity after death (See
Eternalism)
continuity over time, xiii, 190, 19394 (See also rebirth)
empty of own-being, 225, 228
excessive focus on, 5
numerically identical self over time,
185, 189
sameness of self, 183-86
thinking thing for Descartes, 90
True Self (See Atman or True Self)
self as an uncaused cause, 163, 167-68
self-discipline, 14, 22, 123
self-examination advocated in Buddhism.
See introspection
self-existence. See own-being
self-interested motivation in overcoming
suffering, 81-83
self-knowledge, 3
self-sacrifice (and compassion), 246, 24950, 279
self that is independent of the everchanging aggregates, 223
argument against, 125
self that is presumed to lie behind our
will and choices, 126
able to be uncaused cause, 159-60
self we identify with
presumes permanence not found
with the changing aggregates,
121
selfhood, capacity for experiencing, 80

2013-11-20 11:56 AM

Index
selfishness, 61, 70, 220
selflessness, 32, 257
sensations, 53-55, 134
sense of being a controller, 126. See also
self as an uncaused cause
sense of self
overreaches the truth of what we
are, 120
permanent selfhood, 67
presumes an actual sameness of self
over time, 182
Ship of Theseus example, 190-91
Shiva, 8
sickness, old age, and death, 23, 43
cannot by themselves be examples of
suffering, 44
inevitability, 21-22, 24, 30, 35, 74-75,
281
led Gautama to find an alternative
path in life, 21
not the suffering to be overcome in
Buddhism, 87
Siddhartha. See Gautama
Siderits, Mark, 202
Singer, Peter, 80
skandhas. See the five aggregates of
attachment
Skillful Means, xiii-xiv, 257, 262-67
claim that there is no deception in
use of, 272
as deceptive teachings (question), 36
as presented in The Parable of the
Burning House, 269-82
used in Mahayana Buddhism, 222,
246
Socrates, 4
sphere of neither cognition nor noncognition, 25, 98, 243
sphere of nothingness, 25, 97-98, 243
spiritual transcendence, 25
sramanas, 26
Sri Lanka, 221
subject-object dualism, 3, 5-6
subjective reality, 5
Suddhodana (Gautamas father)

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 305

305
kept Gautama from sights of
suffering, 17-18
suffering, xiii, 1-3, 5, 20-22, 40, 43, 46-47,
81, 179, 223
alleviating physical suffering, 259
analysis through analysis of its
causes, 149
attachment to self and (See
attachment to self)
can only be recognized upon its
alleviation, 82
causal understanding of, 88, 149
compassion and, 258-59 (See also
compassion)
and desire connection, 31, 45, 64
(See also desire)
eliminability, 41-42, 46, 67, 69, 148
ending involves overcoming craving
and attachment to self, 82
focus on alleviating suffering of
others, 243, 246, 266
gap between actual and desired
state, 1-2, 6, 24, 32, 48
must be a craving to be suffered, 65
(See also cravings)
overcoming the experience of, 24,
30, 59, 98, 167, 209
psychological change needed to
overcome, 59-60
quest for liberation from, 24
roots of suffering run very deep, 60
spiritual, 61
suffering is pervasive, 40-44, 70, 82
that is dangerous but unrecognized,
273
suffering can be experienced without its
being recognized, 82, 273
suffering of empathy, 258
helps overcome the suffering of
self-attachment, 258
not the focus of suffering in
Buddhist conception, 258
sunyata. See emptiness
supreme gods (monotheism), 8
Sutra Pitaka, 195, 219
sutras, 219

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svabhava. See own-being


swinging monkeys analogy, 133, 146, 211,
234
symbolic reading of the Buddhas life
asceticism is preparation for Middle
Way, 36
complements traditional reading, 36
Gautama was raised to misperceive,
35
Gautamas starting point is also
ours, 35
palace walls interpreted as mental
walls, 34
symbolic reading of the Middle Way,
33-36
symbolism of the Wheel of Becoming,
149
Thailand, 221
That One (tat ekam), 9
theory of karma
connects actions to reactions in
law-like manner, 171, 180
law-like causal connections between
past, present and future, 172
theory of cause and effect, 173
Theravada Abhidharma, 199
Theravada (school of Buddhism), 86, 195,
197, 221
concern for individual freedom
from suffering, 222
third grouping in the First Noble Truth,
61, 66, 91, 172
corresponds to third stage of the
Buddhas life, 48
five aggregates, 50
pervasiveness of suffering, 48-49
suffering is considered eliminable,
49
suffering summed up in terms of
aggregates, 87, 92
Third Noble Truth, 89, 95
involves the aggregates, 43
requires beginning causes that are
not uncaused causes, 159

Panjvani_interior_4press.indd 306

speaks of the cessation of suffering,


86 (See also Nirvana)
suffering can be eliminated, 40-41,
44, 153, 164
suffering can be eliminated by
eliminating its causes, 158
uncaused cause violates, 159, 166
third-order desire, 73-74
Thomas, Edward J., 16, 174-75
Three Root Evils, 88
Tibet, 221
Treasury of Abhidharma (Vasabandhu), 197
tree example, 182-83, 200
Tree of Enlightenment (Bodhi Tree), 26
Tripitaka, 195, 219
trishna. See cravings
true nature of reality is one, 8
true nature of reality or ultimate reality, 9
True Self. See Atman
truth, xi, xii-xiii
connection between truth and
teachings in Buddhism, xiii-xiv,
269
ultimate, 185, 239
Tsongkhapa (Tibetan philosopher), 245
Ultimate Reality. See Brahman
ultimate truth, 94, 185, 207, 239-40
uncaused cause, 160
uncaused cause vs. a beginning cause,
150, 158-59
uncaused cause violates Third Noble
Truth, 159, 161, 166
unenlightened. See beginners on path to
enlightenment
unity or oneness with reality, 5
universal causation, 150, 156, 159-60
does not imply causal determinism,
151
implies that the self is not an
uncaused cause, 168
importance in understanding
Dependent Origination, 164-68
mental causation with, 161-64
mental causation without, 156-60

2013-11-20 11:56 AM

Index
unsatisfied desire, 2
ineradicable part of human
existence, 31, 49, 66, 69
need not be suffered under
Buddhist sense, 66
Upanishadic monism, 238
Upanishadic thought, 174
Upanishads, 8, 13, 111-13, 178, 240
Brahman stands for ultimate reality,
9
metaphysical monism in, 6
philosophy of, 9-11
True Self, 12, 113 (See also Atman)
unity or oneness with reality, 5
upaya kaushalya. See Skillful Means
Varuna (god of the sky), 7
Vasabandhu, Treasury of Abhidharma, 197
Vedanta. See Upanishads
Vedas, 6-9, 178
Vedic traditions, 174
Vietnam, 221
Vinaya Pitaka, 94, 195, 219
Vishnu, 8
Visuddhimagga. See Path of Purification
(Buddhaghosa)
volitions, 57, 88, 104, 149, 207

307
Western philosophical tradition, 4, 190
Wheel of Becoming, 87
causal understanding of suffering,
88, 149
elements characterize our
unenlightened existence, 88
stopping the motion of, 88
symbolism of the, 149
underlying forces that keep the
wheel in motion, 88
will, 160, 163
willful ignorance, 35-36
Williams, Paul, 17, 34, 203, 206, 213, 25354, 267
distinction between reality and
appearance, 207
wisdom, 99, 102, 222-31, 240, 245
counteracting the Three Root Evils,
88
pseudo-wisdom, 26
world of our experience, 198, 209
distinguished from world in which
we live, 207
Yoga, 14
yogis, 25, 97
Zen Buddhism, 229, 257

wants, 67-68
Western philosophical terminology, 200,
204

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from the publisher


A name never says it all, but the word broadview expresses a good
deal of the philosophy behind our company. We are open to a broad
range of academic approaches and political viewpoints. We pay
attention to the broad impact book publishing and book printing has
in the wider world; we began using recycled stock more than a decade
ago, and for some years now we have used 100% recycled paper
for most titles. As a Canadian-based company we naturally publish
a number of titles with a Canadian emphasis, but our publishing
program overall is internationally oriented and broad-ranging. Our
individual titles often appeal to a broad readership too; many are of
interest as much to general readers as to academics and students.
Founded in 1985, Broadview remains a fully
independent company owned by its shareholdersnot
an imprint or subsidiary of a larger multinational.
_________________________________

If you would like to find out more about Broadview


and about the books we publish, please visit us at
www.broadviewpress.com. And if youd like to
place an order through the site, wed like to show our
appreciation by extending a special discount to you: by
entering the code below you will receive a 20% discount
on purchases made through the Broadview website.
Discount code: broadview20%

Thank you for choosing Broadview.

Please note: this offer applies only to sales of


bound books within the United States or Canada.

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Cyrus Panjvani is Associate Professor of Philosophy at MacEwan University.

A Philosophical Approach

This book philosophically introduces the basic truths, doctrines, and


principles of Buddhism. Its goal is to explain the teachings of the Buddha
and of Buddhism clearly and consistently. Though the book treads beyond
the Buddhas life, including into the Abhidharma and Mahayana traditions,
it remains throughout a philosophical discussion and elaboration of the
Buddhas thought. It is meant to be an accessible guide for those who have
no background in Buddhism, and to be beneficial to the philosophical
understanding of those who do.

Buddhism

Readers looking for a clear, concise, and accessible introduction to the


basic tenets of Buddhism will find Panjvanis book ideally suited to their
needs. The book covers such quintessentially Buddhist notions as the
Four Noble Truths, the No Self view of personal identity, and the causal
principle of Dependent Arising. One of the books main strengths is its
systematic and meticulous use of examples drawn from both canonical
and contemporary sources to illustrate the pragmatic aspects of
Buddhist teachings. With just the right blend of doctrinal exposition and
philosophical analysis, Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach offers general
audiences a useful resource for engaging Buddhist ideas in a critical and
effective way.
Christian Coseru, College of Charleston

Cyrus Panjvani

Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach is an excellent introduction to


Buddhist philosophy. It includes a very lucid presentation not only of basic
Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold
Path, but also of such challenging concepts as emptiness and dependent
origination. The work focuses on a general overview of fundamental
issues, but also explores in some depth the complexities involved in crucial
questions such as the nature of desire and the critique of self-identity. I
highly recommend this work for introductory courses in Buddhist and
Asian philosophy.
John P. Clark, Loyola University New Orleans

Buddhism
a philosophical approach

ISBN 978-1-55111-853-6

www.broadviewpress.com

broadview press

Cover design: George Kirkpatrick


Cover: Detail of a mural in the
Ajanta Caves, India.
broadview

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Cyrus Panjvani
2013-11-21 4:16 PM